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Integration of the Balkan Countries in the European Union (EU) and the Sarajevo Summit: The Long Way Home!

Representatives of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, the EU’s foreign policy chief Baroness Ashton, representatives of a number of EU countries, the US, Russia and Turkey are meeting today in a high-level summit in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. The main topic of discussions is the future of the integration of the Balkan countries into the EU. Of these countries only Slovenia has joined the EU, Croatia is the closest to being admitted, and the rest of the countries is more or less in a similar position. Kosovo is somewhat of a particular case, but I’ll get to that later in this post.

While many EU countries are facing their own difficulties both economic and political, it is important that the signals given to the Balkan countries from Brussels are clear and coordinated. As recent history proves, the risks which acting otherwise entails are too great to dismiss. Only a scratch of the surface would reveal that generally aggressive nationalist policies and politicians are still alive and well in this part of Europe, and their political agendas not only are not conducive to friendly relations between their respective countries, but occasionally cause sparks. On a positive note it should be mentioned that mainstream political parties have abandoned bellic rhetoric and countries are inclined to engage in a dialogue. All of them agree that their future is in Europe.

The easing of visa restrictions is a first good step to open the EU to these countries. Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia are already part of the visa-free regime, with Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania to follow (hopefully) before or at the latest by the end of this year. However, free movement for these countries’ citizens is merely an appetizer. What does integration into the EU mean for the average citizen from the Balkans? Socially it means an increase in living standards, economic progress, and the possibility to travel in Europe without restrictions. Politically it means that borders, a sensitive point, by becoming open lose much of their significance. The economic woes facing the EU do not make things easy. However, the Balkan countries in their entirety offer good opportunities for investment, a cheap labor force, and a market, albeit not big. That itself is something not to lose sight of.

Curiously, while the EU adopted a somewhat lenient approach with regard to the integration of Romania and Bulgaria, it intends to adopt a strict approach with regard to the Balkan countries currently in that process. That stands in stark contrast also with the approach taken towards the integration of Greece, Spain and Portugal not too long ago. Generally speaking, the rationale behind accepting these latter States into the EU would largely apply to these Balkan countries too. Trying to integrate the Balkan countries into the EU sooner rather than later would be the better approach.

What about Kosovo’s integration? The country of the young Europeans is eager to join, but its integration process is made difficult by the position of the five European countries that have not recognized it yet. At the same time 22 of the 27 European countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence, and to my knowledge all of the EU countries recognize documents issued by the Kosovar authorities. It is untenable from a logical perspective to keep Kosovo waiting longer, or using a different mechanism for its integration. While there have been many writings over the ‘democratic deficit’ of the EU, Kosovo’s treatment seems to be a manifestation of it par excellence. Moreover, the EU cannot continue to duck the issue eternally, since both Serbia and Kosovo are keen to join the EU and have expressed their intent to do so in the shortest time possible. While many European politicians have stated that it would be difficult if not impossible for Belgrade to achieve membership with the “unsolved issue of Kosovo”, probably it is high time for the EU to express itself with one voice over this issue.

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