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Europe: Are the countries of the Western Balkans ready for the European Union?

Memorandum of the Society for Threatened Peoples on the occasion of the Summit of the EU and the Western Balkans in Sofia (May 17, 2018)

The EU must live up to its leadership role in the Western Balkans, to enable all countries to develop into democratic states and to lay the basis for a just society. Picture: pxhere

The EU has already started accession negotiations with Montenegro and Serbia in 2012 and in 2014, respectively. The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was granted the status of an accession candidate in 2005, followed by Albania in 2014. For these two countries, the EU Commission recommended to start accession negotiations on April 17, 2018. Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for EU membership in February 2016, and the Stabilization and Association Agreement for Kosovo entered into force in April 2016. Both countries are potential candidates.

On February 6, 2018 – 15 years after the countries of the Western Balkans were declared potential candidates for a EU accession (in Thessaloniki in 2003) – the European Commission decided on a strategy for the Western Balkans, defining when each of the countries could expect to join, and what reforms would have to be carried out. In addition, six EU initiatives to support this process have been announced. In Sofia, the EU now wants to provide the countries with incentives and guidance, encouraging them to follow through with the necessary reforms. However, the Western Balkans won’t move closer to Europe by words alone – there will have to be specific actions too. The future of the Western Balkans will also have significant effect on Europe’s future.

There are authoritarian politicians in power in all of the countries of the Western Balkans, and they are trying to keep themselves in power through corruption and nepotism. It will take more political will to initiate democratic change and to establish a rule of law in these countries. The EU should do everything in its power to ensure that the differing interests of the new players in the Balkans – such as Russia, China, Turkey, and some of the Arab countries – will not jeopardize the current situation in which the countries of the Western Balkans are oriented towards the EU. In the interest of all the Western Balkan countries and the European Union, there will have to be initiatives to promote socio-economic development, but it will also be necessary to solve the other problems of the people in the region. Particular attention should be paid to the underprivileged and discriminated minorities, who, during the transformation process, will be dependent on special protection by the respective states. Further, it will be necessary to resolve the problematic situation of the refugees and the internally displaced persons, and to clarify the fate of the persons who went missing during the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-1995), in Croatia (1991-1995), and in Kosovo (1999). In order to come to terms with the past, it will also be necessary to sanction the denial of genocide and crimes against humanity, in order to encourage reconciliation and to secure peace.

Basically, the summit has good chances of becoming a success, as both sides share important interests. On the one hand, the Western Balkans are aiming for economic growth, which is why an accession to the EU is still an important long-term option. On the other hand, the EU is interested in stabilizing a potential conflict zone and in expanding the market.

The idea that Serbia and Montenegro might be able to join the EU in 2025 is realistic, but very ambitious. This can only be achieved if, in the course of the Sofia Summit, the political elites in all the relevant countries agree to carry out fundamental reforms, as a prerequisite for being accepted into the “family” of the European Union. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, there is a major obstacle: to date, the country is kept from moving closer to the European Union by the Dayton Agreement (1995).

For far too long, the international community watched idly while ultranationalist politicians and supporters of the Serb war criminals Radovan Karadži? and Ratko Mladi? snubbed the EU, flatly denied war crimes, fueled hatred among the population, and tried to divide the country. The vast majority of the suspected war criminals have not yet been punished. The President of the Republic of Srpska, Milorad Dodik, is using a possible secession as a threat. He and his fellow politicians are blocking most of the reforms that would be necessary for an accession to the EU and NATO – and, thus, for Bosnia’s economic development. Therefore, the EU must finally free the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina from the “straitjacket” of the Dayton Agreement.

The EU must live up to its leadership role in the Western Balkans, to enable all countries to develop into democratic states and to lay the basis for a just society.

The memorandum can be downloaded here for free (PDF).

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