Wednesday

24th Jan 2018

Opinion

2018 will be important for Western Balkans

  • Tirana: Rama warned that EU momentum could be lost (Photo: lassi.kurkijarvi)

The door to EU enlargement has at last creaked open, three years after European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker slammed it shut by saying there would be no enlargements in his five-year term in office.

For whatever reason - crises survived, an improved continental economy, Brexit - Juncker now feels the time is right to inspect the queue outside and hand out admission slips. But only two. And of those most eager for accession, these two are not among them.

Accession remains a controversial topic in both Serbia and Montenegro, currently tipped as the top candidates for the next round of enlargement.

Their leaders deserve great praise for forging ahead regardless, but the hard truth is that there are other nations, also in the Western Balkans, equally deserving of joining our Union and, crucially, far more enthusiastic about doing so.

The rumour in Brussels is that Montenegro and Serbia are the top candidates because they are most apt to switch sides and cozy up to Moscow.

Personally, I do not give much credit to this. Apart from oil and missiles, Russia has little to offer. But even were it true, it is not a sufficient reason to approve entry while denying others.

The EU is not a cult formed to frustrate the ambitions of Russia. It is a union of nations with ambitions of their own, with common values, a shared culture and a shared perception of how to achieve prosperity and peace in the future.

Nations which share these values belong and should be given every possible encouragement to do so.

I'm not arguing here that the front-runners do not belong in the EU. Far from it. Both are already negotiating the terms, and Montenegro in particular is well advanced in the process.

What is regrettable is that the EU, perhaps inspired by Juncker's early scepticism, has kept others in the region in the slow lane, including those most enthusiastic about joining.

Take Albania: Polls consistently show over 80 percent of its citizens want to join the EU. This shouldn't in itself qualify the nation for membership. But where there is a strong consensus for accession, history tells us that the institutional and policy reforms required for accession are much easier to implement.

In fact, Albania is proving this to be true. For over a year, its opposition Democratic Party fought furiously against particular aspects of the reform package the EU has asked of the Socialist Party government.

Albania

The result? Prime minister Edi Rama's Socialists were returned to power in June with a clear majority.

It is a mandate which should ensure continued progress towards alignment with EU standards, especially in the five areas Brussels has specified as prerequisites for formal negotiation: administrative reform, human rights, the battle against corruption, justice system reform, and action against organised crime.

But the opposition is still resisting these reforms, as witness some shocking scenes of chaos and disruption recently in the Albanian parliament, when the minority Democrats tried to block the appointment of a new prosecutor general.

"The people of Albania should not be surprised that their politicians are fighting amongst themselves," a tartly-worded statement from the US embassy observed. "This means the judicial reform is finally being implemented." It added: "The prosecutor general who refused to prosecute politicians is gone."

In other words, with reforms now at an advanced stage, this is exactly the wrong moment for the EU to keep Albania at the back of the queue. It is time to send a strong message to the Albanian voters that their support for reform and for the EU is having an impact.

Similarly a clear majority (54 percent) of Macedonians want EU accession (compared with just 26 percent in Serbia).

True, its disagreement with neighbouring Greece over the use of the name - which Athens insists applies to one of its provinces - continues to pose a problem. But given the incentive of a faster-track entry to the Union, I suspect the Macedonian authorities would find a solution.

And then there is the Republic of Kosovo, where I was once UN Special Representative.

Kosovo

A remarkable 90 percent of Kosovars want to join the EU. Sadly I doubt their wishes will be granted soon, with both Serbia and five current EU members refusing to recognise its legitimacy. But here too the EU needs to be more proactive, encouraging Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, Spain as well as Serbia to accept the inevitable and acknowledge Kosovo's sovereignty.

It is an example of how the EU's enormous "soft power" assets could achieve important results - if applied.

My feeling is that Brussels has, until very recently, deliberately ignored the Western Balkans. Granted there have been distractions: Ukraine, the migration challenge, unemployment, Greece, and more recently Brexit and Catalonia.

The mood music seems now to be changing. "If we want more stability in our neighbourhood, then we must also maintain a credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans," Juncker said in his state of the union address in September.

My country, France's new president, Emmanuel Macron, has said much the same thing, declaring in the same month that the EU "will have to open up to the Balkan countries."

EU membership is part of the solution to Balkan instability and its long history of inter-ethnic conflict.

Last month, Albania's Rama issued a clear warning: "The Balkans in general, and Albania in particular, will progress," he told a Brussels audience, "but if the prospect [of EU membership] fades away or becomes an illusion, then things can turn out wrong."

Bernard Kouchner is a former French minister for foreign and European affairs, co-founder of Medecins Sans Frontières, founder of Médecins du Monde, and the former UN Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo

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