Is the EU fostering the ‘conflict industry’ in the Balkans?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

The EU's unwillingness to provide the region's countries with an unambiguous path to membership encourages the risk of ethnic nationalism and violence, says the Prime Minister of Kosovo Hashim Thaçi.

Hashim Thaçi is the  prime minister of Kosovo and leader of the Democratic Party of Kosovo (DPK). This op-ed was provided exclusively to EURACTIV Germany on the occasion of Europe Day.

"The era of bloody inter-ethnic wars in the Western Balkans has ended in the last century; however, the prospect of a secure peace is far away. There are many reasons why peace and stability remain so fragile in the Western Balkans, in particular in Kosovo.

That is why we as leaders who have experienced the terrible consequences of the war time, have to stand up and speak loudly before we allow ourselves to be overtaken again by the same inter-ethnic hatred syndromes of the past. This pessimistic message it is not meant to cause panic, but rather to serve as waking call for all of us and in particular for EU.

Let me recall a funding father of the EU, Robert Schuman who in his famous declaration of 9 May 1950 said that “world peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it”.

Further on he said that “the contribution which an organised and living Europe can bring to civilization is indispensable to the maintenance of peaceful relations”. Sixty-two years have passed since then, but Schuman’s remarks are still very relevant.

The project he envisioned, what is now the European Union, is about to succeed, but only if EU leaders stay firm in embracing the remaining Western Balkans within the EU family. After all, our place in this family is well deserved.

 The recent years in the Western Balkans have been identified as the years of considerable success and progress, either in the aspect of democratic consolidation or economic development. This applies to my country, as well.

Nonetheless, the mindset of the past is still present in some parts of the region. Thus, our northern neighbour Serbia still continues in an active manner to undermine Kosovo’s statehood. By doing so, Serbia is questioning the existence of internationally-recognised borders in the Balkans.

This attitude of thinking yet about redrawing borders in the Western Balkans represents the biggest threat to the fragile stability. Serbia in the recent weeks and months undertook several severe provocations against Kosovo.

The last terrorist attack in an ethnic Albanian family in northern Kosovo caused the death of a citizen and injured several members of this family. Moreover, the recent developments in the security dimension in Macedonia underline the fragile situation of the entire region. This situation raises several questions.

Why can’t we yet overcome the instability and bring about a more secure Europe? Do the decision-makers in Brussels lack the will or the power to accelerate the EU integration process for the remaining Western Balkan countries? Are the decision-makers in the EU aware that by dragging this process, they unintentionally help maintain the conflict industry alive in Balkans?

One can not expect easy answers. But those who are responsible for delivering need to make it clear to the people of the Balkans that the train they have embarked on is the right one. That’s the one towards Brussels. Because otherwise, we will all be in trouble.

Any further delays from EU to accelerate the membership of the remaining aspiring countries of the Western Balkans directly undermine our efforts to build multiethnic societies in our countries. Furthermore, delays will serve the radicals’ aspirations to work on their agenda of creating mono-ethnic states. As consequence, this could lead towards the change of internationally-recognised borders – the worst case scenario.

Personally, I have no doubt that Kosovo’s rightful place is within the big EU family. Its membership and equality within the EU remains for us is a roadmap of hope – not only for Kosovo but for other people in Balkans.

We as leaders need to make sure our societies are being developed based on principles which served as foundations to build Europe after the Second World War. We know how difficult and painful that process was. However, it has proven as a successful model and we have no reason to not adopt it. In this way, we are ensuring the construction of a better future which will prevent the bitter past from being repeated.

Moreover, Kosovars have understood that membership into big democratic families cannot take place while obstructing the development of the others. Personally I am deeply convinced that the entire region will suffer if EU is thinking to close its door for newcomers like us. This would have been serious mistake.

 In this context, I do understand limitations and difficulties of EU leaders and member states’ leaders. I try to understand their hesitations, the complicated procedures of the art of reaching consensual decisions. Above everything else, we understand the EU key demands for us in reaching European standards when it comes to the inter-ethnic tolerance, respect for minority rights, the fight against crime, corruption, etc.

We in Kosovo have managed to achieve substantial progress in addressing all these aspects, but until now, there is no payoff for this progress. In contrast, the rest of the regions’ countries have managed to receive several carrots from the EU.

The situation in Kosovo, with respect to EU affairs, is engendering some negative implications. Considering the fact that EU so far has not delivered anything concrete on visa liberalisation or the Stabilisation and Association process, citizens are discouraged and there are some clear signs of euroscepticism.

Kosovo continues to be the only country in the Western Balkans which still does not have any contractual relations with the EU. This is certainly not because we have not done our homework. Therefore, all we ask is to be treated by the EU as equal among the equals. In other words, we want to be treated fairly like other countries in the region.

This is the minimum we ask, and it is a European principle. We do not ask for favours compared to others, but we likewise do not want to be deprived. In fact, the EU course of action towards Kosovo, until now is still in the phase of rhetoric. EU highlights the importance of European perspective for Kosovo, but no concrete step is seen and all this remains simply as a rhetoric.

We continue to believe in the European principles and values, but that has not helped Kosovo not to be considered still as a black hole of the region. This is the right moment for Kosovo to move forward and get closer to the EU destination; it’s also time for the EU to tell us that beyond the rhetoric, the future of Kosovo is also concretely linked with European perspective.

This will also contribute further to the peace and stability in the region and will be a decisive step of closing the doors for the mindset of the past, which is still present in the region. Almost two decades ago, the Kosovo War served as a catalyst for the democratisation and European integration. Now Kosovo should not be left as the last country on our continent without a European future.

Make no mistake: This must be the hour of Europe for Kosovo."