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The Thessaloniki Declaration: more relevant than ever?

George Papandreou
former Prime Minister of Greece (2009-2011)

20 years ago, the leaders of the EU and the Western Balkans committed themselves to the Thessaloniki Declaration. In the first few lines, they agreed on the unequivocal support towards the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries. The future of the Balkans was to be within the European Union.

The Thessaloniki Declaration was an initial roadmap for the EU accession of the countries of the Western Balkans. It outlined a few basic priorities, principles and mutual commitments: 

  • The values of democracy, the rule of law, respect for human and minority rights as well as the role of education, culture and youth in promoting tolerance, ensuring ethnic and religious coexistence and shaping modern democratic societies;
  • Peaceful resolution of conflicts and regional cooperation as principles of the highest importance. Fragmentation and divisions along ethnic lines were to be incompatible with the European perspective, which should act as a catalyst for addressing problems in the region and promote regional cooperation;
  • Economic prosperity and sustainable development to ensure employment were seen as essential to long-term stability and democracy in the region;
  • Modern networks and infrastructures in energy, transport and telecommunications in the region, linked with the Trans-European Networks;
  • Fighting organised crime and corruption as these were obvious obstacles to democratic stability, the rule of law, economic development and the development of civil society.

These goals were a short but clear description of the challenges and problems the Balkans faced. And the European Union, as well as the prospect of joining it, was to become the catalyst for change and solutions to these issues in the region.

On the positive side, the EU’s engagement, backed by the Thessaloniki Declaration, has contributed to strengthening democratic institutions, promoting the rule of law and advancing human rights in the Western Balkans. Progress has been made in areas such as judicial reforms, media freedom and the fight against corruption. The declaration provided a roadmap for the Western Balkan countries’ European integration aspirations. As a result, Croatia joined the EU in 2013, and Montenegro and Serbia are currently negotiating for EU membership. Albania and North Macedonia have also made significant progress towards opening accession talks. At the same time, the declaration fostered regional cooperation and reconciliation, paving the way for improved relations between countries in the Western Balkans. Platforms such as the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) have been instrumental in enhancing dialogue, resolving disputes and promoting economic integration. 

On the negative side, major progress and breakthroughs have been rare, stifled or left unrewarded by the EU. As years went by a spiral of inertia overtook the accession process. From democratic practices to the resolution of conflicts, to economic progress and transparency, much still is lacking. And economic stagnation has led to the migratory bleeding of the youngest and most talented of the region. This cycle of inertia has been gradually transformed into a worrisome pattern of finger-pointing. EU member states often lay the responsibility on the candidate countries for not quickly reforming and not being able to solve long-standing conflicts, while those in the Western Balkans point to the lack of true appetite from member states towards further enlargement which has undermined the candidates’ political will and genuine efforts for change. 

Arguments from both sides abound. After the Prespa Agreement – which yes, was catalysed by the prospects of EU accession – North Macedonia was not rewarded as it faced a veto from France and then a new stumbling block from its neighbouring Bulgaria. On the other hand, the systematic efforts of the EU to end the difficult Kosovo-Serbia dispute continue to be bogged down in the mutual mistrust that characterises both sides.

We must break this cycle of blame game. Because the real challenge is an existential one for Europe itself. It is not whether the Balkans will be Europeanised but whether Europe will be balkanised.

The frequent crises Europe has been facing have been accompanied by deep inequalities, a sense of disempowerment and insecurity in our societies, which have become the breeding ground for authoritarian leaders, demagoguery, conspiracy theories and Neo-nazi, ultra-right tendencies. The motto of those groups – ‘take back control’ – is a  neo-nationalistic vision of societies, where fear and hatred reign. As democrats, as Socialists and Progressives, we must reframe this destructive narrative. 

The war on our borders has shattered our complacency and the belief that history is on our side. Yes, we must take control! But our empowerment, our sense and ability to control our future, will never be realised through a nationalistic vision. It can only be possible if the European Union steps up to unify around the values of social inclusion, peaceful resolution of conflict and deepening participative democracy, with transparency and green sustainable development. And if it shows the will to become strong enough to defend these values in practice. 

No, the Balkans are not a separate, distant issue. The fight for these values written down in the Thessaloniki Declaration is a fight for Europe itself. Reinvigorating the accession process and giving new hope and prospects to our transformation is at the heart of what Europe faces today – the defence of basic democratic and humane values as we face the challenges of the future.

And our progressive family is called upon, once more, to make the historic difference. 

Photocredits: European Communities, 2003

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