Give Balkan nations their proper place in Europe
Give Balkan nations their proper place in Europe
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 2 minutes

Give Balkan nations their proper place in Europe

As the European Union prepares to welcome 10 more nations - with Bulgaria and Romania hopefully entering soon afterward - we risk squandering years of effort and betraying our European ideal if we do not also embrace those neighboring countries that, for now, remain outside.

The historic project of integrating Europe will not be complete until we have incorporated the five nations of the Western Balkans - Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Serbia and Montenegro. While the EU Commission says that it recognizes that their eventual membership is inevitable, these promises risk seeming insincere.

There is a danger that these countries will be allowed to fall further behind their future EU partners, rather than being brought into the European mainstream. Even in their immediate region, the disparity is widening as Bulgaria and Romania receive generous EU support for structural reform and rural development in preparation for accession as early as 2007. This divergence is a threat to us all.

What is needed is an act of vision by EU leaders at the summit meeting this week at Thessaloniki to position the states of the Western Balkans to take their proper place in Europe. Given their tumultuous recent history, it is premature to grant these countries formal status as candidates for EU membership. But that is no reason not to make available preaccession programs that will strengthen the social and economic cohesion of the continent.

In a joint communiqué this month, the presidents of five Western Balkan states insisted that their countries see their future inside the union. Their declaration revealed a new self-confidence and determination to fix the region's problems, particularly organized crime and corruption. Their unprecedented display of common purpose was a powerful demonstration of the fact that the Western Balkan nations are no longer hopelessly divided and are capable of handling structural EU assistance in the same way their Eastern neighbors, Bulgaria and Romania, have done

To its credit, the Greek EU presidency has proposed spending an additional E300 million on the Western Balkans and shifting support from reconstruction - which is largely complete - to stimulating economic development. Aid to the region would be moved into the budget for preaccession countries.

The Greek plan would send a welcome signal to the long-suffering people of the Western Balkans that they can look forward to being welcomed into the Union. It also amounts to an acknowledgment by the EU that the challenge in the area is no longer to provide humanitarian or reconstruction aid, but to address deeper structural problems, such as low agricultural productivity, deindustrialization and the need to retrain the work force.

Another signal of Europe's commitment to the region would be if the EU would ease and then lift the visa regime, as it did with Croatia. At present, visas make travel from the region to the European Union difficult.

Nevertheless, the proposal faces opposition at Thessaloniki. Some member states and some in the European Commission evidently believe they can get away with offering increased political dialogue, parliamentary cooperation, support for institution-building and tokens such as student exchange programs. That is simply not enough.

Without sustained economic growth, there just will not be long-term stability and democracy in the area. A minimalist approach will only ensure that the organized crime, migration and trafficking that beset the Western Balkans continue to spill over into the EU.

At bottom, the debate is really over eventual EU membership for the Western Balkan states. The European public and their leaders need to recognize that integration offers the best prospect for the continent's peace and prosperity. A far-sighted policy would treat Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Serbia and Montenegro the way Bulgaria and Romania are treated now, and put them firmly on the road to membership.

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