The Communication on EU-enlargement policy presented by the European Commission on 6 October is encouraging for the countries of the Western Balkans. Together with the EC’s Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans and the Covid-19 recovery plan, it shows a great deal of goodwill. The country reports consist of concrete analyses based on facts, and they make very clear recommendations to the European Council and to the Foreign Ministers of the 27 EU Member States. The Commission’s latest 2020 communication sends the extremely important message to the Council that North Macedonia and Albania have (almost) met the criteria, and that the date for the first intergovernmental conferences should be set as soon as possible. Furthermore, the Commission also urges the Council to decide on visa liberalisation with Kosovo urgently. This liberalisation has in fact been well-deserved for a long time.
Apart from a few differences over details, the European Parliament is largely likely to follow the common view. This could be a good chance for the Council to win back some of its lost credibility.
The outcome of the upcoming meetings of the foreign ministers is still open. In the past the EU foreign ministers have all too often shown that they do not base all their decision on the fact-based reports, as they have their own agenda that is determined by the interests of their respective home countries. Rumours have it that four Member States are still not convinced. Two of these member states, incidentally, have a progressive majority.
The Progressives have always been very clear. Right from the start we have supported the integration of the countries of the Western Balkans into the European Union – not only because of our geostrategic interests, but also because the benefits are mutual.
Times have changed since the 2002 Copenhagen Summit and the better known 2003 Thessaloniki Summit. Russia, China, Turkey and even Saudi Arabia have all their own interests in the region, and have all increased their activities enormously since then. But what has changed for the citizens in Tirana, Skopje or Belgrade? Not enough for a 17-year effort – or not at least with regards to their daily lives.
We all need to speed up our efforts – not only the European Union in general, but also the progressive movement in Europe. We need to help and to advise our friends in the Western Balkans and we have to do our homework in the EU Member States.
Our activities in the Western Balkans should concentrate on helping the economy and promoting social justice, as well as on the all-important administrative and institutional reforms – but first and foremost on European values such as democracy, the rule of law, and freedom of media. Of course, Progressives also focus on stability and regional cooperation. But stability without democracy, the rule of law or fundamental freedoms provide an easy route for autocrats or even for worse.
We need to stand up in Brussels and other European capitals. We need to work more in the region with the relevant stakeholders and decision-makers. And we need to insist that the process of engagement returns to a political process. For the time being the accession process seems to many citizens in the region like a big bureaucratic and technocratic monster. For sure we need the bureaucratic work and experts, but if we want to extend hope and if we want to make our willingness for integration and for progress visible, then we have to organise a visible political process which is so much more than a few soap box speeches from the president of the European Commission. We Progressives will not stop our efforts. We will multiply them and so in three different way.
Firstly, we have to urge the Council, and this does not exclude our own members in the Council, to win back credibility through standing by the words once given.
Secondly, we have to multiply our activities in the region to encourage the governments and the institutions of the Western Balkans for quicker reforms and better political cooperation in their countries, because we know that governments are not the only ones that can slow down reform processes. The opposition and other state institutions need to show responsibility too.
Thirdly, we have to be more outspoken in our own EU Member States. If we really want a successful accession process, we have to be clear at home and we have to convince our fellow party members and our voters.
We need to do everything possible to facilitate a real progress in the next two or three years. Otherwise, there is a very real risk that many people in the Western Balkans will be too disappointed to continue on the “European path”.