How Western Balkans Can Win EU Integration Struggle
By Genc Mlloja
Albanian Daily News
Published January 12, 2018
The Western Balkans is in a place in its existence right now where all the six regional countries have great chances to turn their coexistence around in a big way and fast, making 2018 their best year ever. But this change should be a 'brand' produced by the efforts of all the regional partners and the main promoter, the European Union which all of them aspire to join. And apparently none of these countries seem to have the 'luxury' to lose this opportunity at this juncture of time.
The 'Berlin Process', launched by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2014, has shown that it can turn their life around fast and achieve success beyond previous expectations, which, in addition, can contribute to the future of the 'European dream'.
Bulgaria's rotating six - month EU Presidency since January 1 this year represents a remarkable milestone in this direction with a strongly declared highlight of the platform of official Sofia according to which the peace, the calm, the stability and the future of Europe pass through the Western Balkans. "The European project will not be complete without them," Ms. Lilyana Pavlova, the minister responsible for Bulgaria's EU presidency Pavlova has said before her country took over the EU Presidency on January 1, 2018. "Their integration is a natural process, which had somewhat dimmed, but a process that needs to continue and now is the time if we don't want to miss the moment," said Pavlova.
Bulgaria, which joined the EU with its northern neighbor Romania in 2007, has turned into a big promoter of faster accession for its Western Balkan neighbors without giving false hopes, but insisting on supporting them with projects and investments so that they can feel part of the European family, that is in reality the European perspective.
It is not by chance that Bulgaria will host an EU-Western Balkan summit on May 17, the 15th anniversary of a previous one in Thessaloniki, Greece, when member states first promised to take in the region.
As it is reported its targets will be concrete agreements to boost transport, energy and digital links between the Western Balkans and the EU. Sofia will also seek more EU funds for new highways, railroads and energy infrastructure to link the region with the bloc as well as financing from the World Bank, the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Bulgaria also wants to reduce roaming rates for the Western Balkans just as they were lowered for EU citizens this year.
With Austria and Romania following Bulgaria as presidencies of the EU Council - all countries that are familiar with the Western Balkans, it seems that it is the right time to allow the region to move closer to the bloc.
Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have been progressing at different speeds with the accession process, but the slow pace of progress have given way to some disillusionment in the region with the EU.
The critical mistakes of the past should be avoided, which some countries unfortunately continue to make, so that they should not obstruct massive success to come into the region. The previous joint statements bearing the seals of Berlin, Vienna, Paris and Trieste, should be put into life so that immediately get the "wheels in motion" to turn the regional cooperation around fast and allow inner peace and cooperative spirit to flow effortlessly into the development of all the countries.
The quickest way to rewire and reprogram the common strategy in cooperation with EU is the Sofia Summit in May where anyone should manifest objectives for great success.
Shadows of EU's Timeframe
However is the timeframe set in the strategy paper to be adopted either on 7 or 14 February this year by the EU commission encouraging and realistic for the six Western Balkan countries? According to it, the EU is preparing to pledge a 2025 deadline for the next wave of enlargement starting with Montenegro and Serbia. The strategy paper, which has been seen by certain European media, implies that Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo, should be well advanced on their European path by then without mentioning any date, just saying "negotiations... should be well advanced."
Serbia and Montenegro have already opened accession talks. Albania and Macedonia are hoping to do it this year, if Macedonia can resolve its name dispute with Greece. Bosnia is angling to gain EU "candidate" status, while Kosovo is considering to formally ask to become a candidate.
However, it is very interesting to note that the views on the benefits of joining the EU vary across the Balkan countries, and it is to be noted that the majority of the population of Serbia and Montenegro, the 'favorites' of the EU, seem to be the most reluctant to join the Club. According to different authoritative polls, fewer than 40 percent of Serbians believe the country will benefit from EU accession, with a similarly low percentage in Montenegro which is estimated to be 49 percent.
In the meantime, it is striking that more than 80 percent of Albanians and 84 percent of Kosovars want to join the union. Comments on the above polls insist that the richer countries in the region and those that are most advanced on the accession path have seen a sharp decline in enthusiasm for entry to the EU. On the contrary, in those with the lowest GDP per capita, for whom accession is a distant prospect, citizens are most keen to join.
But are there any political elements added to this anti-EU sentiment? Some political analysts say firmly 'Yes' that in the cases of Serbia and Montenegro a large number of the population see in Russia their traditional ally and consider as 'treason' against Moscow the alliance with the Western EU. Gallup findings show that 54 percent of Serbs approved of Russia's leadership over the past two years (compared to just 28 percent who approved of the EU's leadership), the highest proportion across the region.
Is Albanians' 'Love' for EU a 'Shield'...?
It is very true what Gallup analysts note that residents in two of the poorest areas in the Western Balkans with sky-rocketing unemployment rates; namely Albania and Kosovo, see that membership in the EU maybe a means to improve their situation and living standards and stimulate job growth.
Nevertheless it is hard to neglect the supposition that Albania and Kosovo's relative isolation in a principally ethnic Slavic region leads them to look to the wider international community for political and economic support.
Albania's membership in NATO, for example, is considered as an historical event for this country, but also for Kosovo. According to political analysts, NATO and EU are seen by these two non- Slavic countries as a defensive shield in face of the dominantly Slavic populated states across the region.
So, according to them, it is a mixed combination of their economic interests with political objectives given their bitter historical past in the relations with the Slavic neighbors. It is an historical and unforgettable grievance the bloody ethnic cleansing attempt of Albanians in Kosovo by the Milosevic regime which was stopped by the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia to prevent it. And, in addition, the dominant expectation among the EU countries is that Serbia will not recognize Kosovo's independence, which is, at least what official Brussels say, a must for it before joining the bloc.
On the other hand, it is said that Juncker's change of heart turning to the Western Balkans enlargement should be seen in the context of an alleged increased Russian activity in the region. "Russia is flooding Balkans media with anti-EU propaganda and stoking Serb nationalism with arms deals," said EUobserver in comment. Last year, suspected Russian spies were behind a failed coup in Montenegro designed to stop it from joining NATO.
Albania Doesn't Hide Its Disappointment
Despite a positive assessment of Albania's progression regarding reforms and its clear commitment to joining the European Union in the near future, the EU's delay in the opening of negotiations on accession is serving only to alienate this Western Balkan country with its highest authorities being nervous with regards to Brussels' hesitation.
So at the conference on Albania's EU integration process, which was organized by the Hanns Seidel Foundation in Brussels on December 4, 2017 the Albanian Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, Ditmir Bushati, made it clear that his country is expecting the European Council to adopt a decision in June 2018 on the opening of accession talks. Any further delay in the process, warned Bushati, would be a 'huge disappointment' for the Albanians and may be interpreted as an 'unwelcome message'.
"Since the very first moment of Albania's post-communist journey, our main national priority has been, and remains, to become closer to the EU and ultimately to join the union. Our path to the EU has proved to be long and difficult as we had to rebuild not just roads and institutions, but first and foremost the culture of the Rule of Law and accountability. In April 2018, the European Commission will present a report on our country and we expect unconditional recommendation to open accession talks. Our realistic expectations are that in June the Council will adopt a decision on accession talks with our country. Anything short of this would be a huge disappointment and an unwelcome message to the Albanians," Bushati said.
Addressing the audience, the Minister added that the current political context in the EU, considering Brexit and the rise of nationalism in Poland, does not favor a process of enlargement for the EU. Nevertheless, stressed Bushati, there is no alternative to integration because 'when the Balkans are neglected or side-lined, problems arise', perhaps referring to the bloody events which took place in the region during the 1990s.
Official Tirana has high expectations regarding the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU, as Bulgaria actively supports the development of integration of the Western Balkans and has placed the topic of enlargement at the top of its agenda. Albania submitted its formal application for EU membership in 2009. Five years later it was granted EU candidate status, but without any clear statement regarding a time period for the opening of accession talks. Later, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Johannes Hahn, linked the beginning of negotiations with the meeting by Albania of two conditions - a re-opening of the dialogue with the opposition and the successful delivery of reforms in five key areas, identified as public administration, rule of law, corruption, organized crime and fundamental rights.
In a sort of rebuff the Prime Minister, Edi Rama, has insistently said even recently that his country had already fulfilled the 'home tasks' set by the EU to have the accession negotiations started. His reluctance over the 'wait and see' stance of Brussels is reflected even in his hints, used even before, that if the EU does not consider constructively Albania case, then other options will be taken into consideration. Nevertheless, he has not been concrete on this alternative, and it remains to be seen how deep Albania's reluctance is.
But President Meta is more cautious saying a few days ago that integration should be in the focus of the politics and the conflicting rhetoric does not serve the interest of the integration of the country. "Let us focus on June this year for the negotiations with EU. The country has all the chances for the negotiations. If this chance is lost, there will be a high cost for our perspective. We should give up the conflicting spirit," said Meta.