Progress for Western Balkan nations – a step forward for federalised Europe

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

Can the EU get its own house in sufficient order in the year ahead to feel confident enough in its future to begin again to contemplate further enlargement? [Shutterstock]

Though the EU has lately been busy dealing with issues such as Brexit and the migration crisis, it has found time to talk of the integration of the Western Balkans. A steady integration of the region is good news indeed as this could lead to a federalised Europe and a complete Union, writes Bernard Kouchner.

Bernard Kouchner is the former French Minister for foreign and European affairs, co-founder of Médecins Sans Frontières, and founder of Médecins du Monde. He is the former head of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo.

As EU ministers last week confronted the profoundly difficult issues arising from the migrant problem, Brexit and the rise of populism, they also managed to find a way to avoid interrupting the steady integration of the Western Balkan nations.

The issue at hand was whether and when to open formal talks with Macedonia and Albania, despite the concerns of France, the Netherlands and Denmark. The ministers agreed to begin talks in a year’s time but, critically, they authorised an immediate start to pre-negotiation screening.

The net effect should be no delay at all, and a genuine prospect for these two nations and two others to proceed towards accession together, possibly by 2025, as Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has stated.

This is good news for Albania and Macedonia. But it is also excellent news for a federalised Europe, very nearly completing the integration of the continent’s southern border territories.

The six nations of the Western Balkan region, five components of the former Yugoslavia plus Albania, want in.  Of these, Serbia and Montenegro are already in the negotiation process. The European Commission believes Albania and Macedonia are ready to join them.

Most EU members agree but the decision required a unanimous vote. Ultimately, it was decided that preparations for the negotiations would begin immediately, and formal talks will start in a year.

Let us be clear about what this means. Negotiating entry into the EU is not like negotiating the price of a carpet. The EU negotiation is a process where the Union sets standards and applicants for membership seek to meet them.

In fact, Macedonia and Albania have been negotiating and meeting standards for years — reforming, revising, restructuring their governmental institutions. Macedonia became a candidate for accession in 2005, and Albania in 2014. In both cases, conditions were set which both needed to meet before formal negotiations could be begun. That is where we are now.

In Macedonia’s case, the critical issue has been its name, which happens to also be the name of an important province in neighbouring Greece. This is a highly emotive issue for both nations, with many centuries of history and cultural identity behind it.

In recent days, with formal EU negotiations acting as the incentive, the Macedonia government has agreed to a compromise. It will be called the Republic of North Macedonia, assuming its parliament and a subsequent referendum agree.

In Albania, the European Commission set five conditions before formal negotiations could begin. The Commission now says all have been met, and it has been especially mindful of Tirana’s extraordinary efforts to clean up its justice system.

This has been a remarkable struggle against vested interests which, at times, have almost paralysed the political process and civil discourse. The Albanian model for justice reform is now being recommended for implementation across the region and possibly even amongst some existing EU members.

In many respects, Albania Prime Minister Edi Rama’s government has exceeded expectations and even achieved some standards which will be set in the formal negotiations. Albanians — including ethnic Albanians in the other Western Balkan countries — are among the most enthusiastic about the EU.

Buoyed by this support at home, Rama has been able to influence developments across the region. It is fair to say that without his encouragement, the grassroots activism which ultimately led to the election of a reformist government in Macedonia might not have occurred, and the agreement with Greece would have continued to be impossible.

Similarly, Rama’s behind-the-scenes role in keeping Serbia and its former province of Kosovo talking has been crucial.

In other words, Rama has been doing what the EU — preoccupied elsewhere with Brexit, the migrant crisis and the rise of populist reactionaries — has been too distracted to do in the Western Balkans, preparing the region as a whole to enter the EU, essentially completing the Union of nearly all of Europe.

The issue now is not whether Albania and Macedonia can produce the deeper reforms the EU claims are needed. The governments of both have said the changes are being pushed through out of national self-interest rather than to please Brussels.

The real question is whether the EU can get its own house in sufficient order in the year ahead and feel confident enough in its future to begin again contemplating further enlargement.

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