Leaders must take action, giving signals is not enough

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

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (front L) and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov (front-R) speak at a press conference of the EU and Western Balkans Summit in Sofia on 1 March 2018 . [EPA-EFE/VASSIL DONEV]

The EU should allow North Macedonia and Albania to sit at the EU accession negotiations table this week – anything else would be a grave political mistake, argues Sergei Stanishev.

Sergei Stanishev is an MEP and the president of PES (Party of European Socialists).

Strange as it is, we find ourselves today in an awkward moment. Western Balkans leaders are demonstrating better leadership than the European ones they see as role models.

The EU, in all its great wisdom, is about to make a grave political mistake at this week’s European Council meeting, if it decides not to give the green light to Northern Macedonia and Albania to start accession negotiations, as recommended by the Commission for 2 years in a row now.

In 2014 European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker made headlines with his ‘no enlargement in the next 5 years’ statement. The fact per se was self-evident, but the message was detrimental to the process. Preoccupied with Brexit, migration, trans-Atlantic relations and other crises, the EU left the Western Balkans to drift on their own, hoping for the best.

And if we stand a step closer to their accession today, it is only because the European social democrats did not let it go.

We positively engaged with the process and supported progressive leaders in North Macedonia, Albania and Greece as they pushed on against all odds, often paying a high political price. North Macedonia signed the Prespa Agreement with Greece to solve the name issue, and a special treaty with Bulgaria, promising better neighbourly relations.

Balkan leaders are determined to turn the page of the past and have taken some difficult decisions to move their countries towards a new era. For the first time in a long while, there is a chance to start talking about the future of these countries, not their troubled past.

The conditions are met. ‘Enlargement fatigue’ is no longer the dominant perspective. Populists and nationalists have lost their momentum. And yet, we are about to miss this chance, because one EU government is opposed.

We often say that the EU is a community of values, and rightly so. It is based on shared values, but also on mutual trust and solidarity – a fundamental understanding that we all act in the common interest, safeguarding the common good, mutually enhancing our shared peace, security and prosperity.

And if we cannot follow up on our commitments towards one another, we undermine not only our credibility but the very notion that we care and stand up for each other. Without these commitments, we are neither a Union nor a community, just selfish actors pursuing naked self-interest in a relentless zero-sum game.

This is not the EU the founding fathers envisaged, not the EU our citizens expect. It is certainly not an EU which can prosper and excel in a turbulent 21st-century world.

Citizens are tired of leaders ‘sending signals. Tired of leaders who put their own short-term internal political interests before anything else, or who hide personal interests behind the banner of national interests. Too often people see the EU institutional set up as the mother of all problems, the reason for our inability to act.

In fact, it is most often the behaviour of national leaders which prevents the EU from delivering for citizens. From the (lack of) Schengen enlargement, through the Greek debt crisis and the migration issue, all the way to the ‘privatization’ of democracy, and the rule of law in some Member States, there are too many examples.

It is time national leaders, too, are held accountable for the EU’s failures, and not the Council, which can only promise to ‘revert back to the issue’ next year. We need decisive, responsible action now.

We need action now not because the integration of the Western Balkans into the EU is in our best political, economic and security interests. We need it because politics does not tolerate a vacuum – the void we leave will soon be filled by others.

While Trump is busy making America ‘great’ again, Erdogan is also busy making Turkey ‘great’ again. Too many ‘great’ ambitions intersect at the Balkans, and too many local actors are eager to revive the ghosts of the past to achieve their own ‘great’ visions.

Looking back at the Balkans’ troubled history, we see how easily trust can be broken. How friendships between nations and peoples can be lost. And for what? I believe there is a lesson to be learned here. Some neighbouring EU countries are not providing the best example, with leaders who believe they are also destined for ‘greatness’.

But we know well that all ‘great’ visions have cost humanity dearly – in lives lost, in human spirit brought low and tarnished, in chaos and destruction. Leaders of today who aspire to shape and lead Europe and the world should know better.

Today we have smartphones, smart cars, smart toasters, you name it. We could use some smart leadership. Not bullying, blackmailing, putting red lines on every single issue, without contributing or presenting solutions.

And certainly not one of paternalizing your allies, as if they are kids which need schooling, for they are certainly kids no longer. We need real leadership and not ‘visions’.

Real leaders take actions. Like opening the EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania this Thursday. This would be the smart, European thing to do.

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