In these hard times for the European Union (EU) it is difficult to make the case for further enlargement. The Euro crisis has even led the founding countries to question the future of the EU project, at least in its current form. Most of the predictions seem pessimistic. However, if the Union survives the current crisis, it will be stronger for it – which is reason to rejoice! There is one thing we can expect with confidence: it will be a new Europe.
In these complex times, it seems as if the Western Balkans has lost it ‘momentum’, or at least, that the process of integration will be delayed. Unlike Croatia, which is likely to join the EU in 2013, Albania, Macedonia and Serbia seem trapped in the ‘old politics’ of unproductive debate; a continuing tendency towards centralization; and difficulties in economic development (which can in part be explained the general world economic world).
All three states face the same types of problem and must follow the same path towards integration in the Union. That said, the obstacles facing Macedonian and Serbian integration are mostly to do with external affairs; while for Albania the issue is solely internal. The two former Yugoslav states, Macedonia and Serbia, should try harder to solve their disputes with Greece and Kosovo. The most pressing issues in Albania stem from high levels of corruption; problematic elections; a lack of political dialogue; and the absence of sustainable development in democracy and the rule of law. The shooting of four people during opposition protests in Tirana, the capital, in January 2011, combined with problematic elections for the city’s mayor, convinced Brussels that integration was still a long way off. Europe has a unique message for Albania: Albanians should find their own solutions to their own problems.
Since it became a candidate for EU membership in 2005, Macedonia has shown great commitment to achieving this goal. Kosovo is seen as the main, if not the only, obstacle for Serbia to be successful. Why then has this sudden turn in Albania’s politics occurred at a time when the majority of its people see the European Union as the only international actor that might encourage politicians to sit together and look for better solutions to the country’s many problems?
Firstly, an answer can be found in a recent change of course in the way Brussels has approached enlargement. In spite of considerable efforts, investment and diplomatic pressure, the last enlargement was considered by many to be disappointing. Bulgaria and Rumania did not show the expected political maturity, particularly in issues of corruption (the main Balkan political ‘sickness’). But it is not only the ‘new’ Members who have made mistakes. Europe’s current crisis was not caused by the last enlargement. When looking back at the history of EU integration, Greece and Italy appear to have been problematic in terms of political stability and economic growth. However, it made sense for the two to be part of a European Union. It was certainly a product of the many historical issues of the time. Yet, for integration to happen, outside pressure was needed. Today there is perhaps a wish that instead of responding to outside pressure, the two countries could have demonstrated better internal governance and control. With the new potential Member states, regardless of the external pressures that are placed upon them, they should demonstrate an ability to act responsibly and face the consequences of their actions.
Secondly, if we argue in such a ‘values based’ manner, and forget about the many complicated geopolitical, historical and social aspects, we are in danger of overlooking the most important factor in the process of integration. For the European Union, the most important concern must be the fulfillment of ‘standards’. However, this might take another decade, as each potential Member state resolves its own problems, but it will be a safer enlargement. This could be the perfect time for progressive politicians to use a ready-made model and simply lead their country toward integration with the European Union. The EU in this case becomes not the aim in itself, but rather an approach to follow, a path of strict standards to be fulfilled.
Luckily there is no hurry. The candidate Member states should be given the opportunity to resolve their own problems. In the meantime, let us hope United Europe weathers the current crisis; this is the Western Balkan’s hope!