Op-Ed/“When is a region a true region? Some thoughts on the Western Balkans”

Op-Ed/“When is a region a true region? Some thoughts on the Western Balkans”

By Ditmir Bushati

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Albania

“When is a region a true region?”

A region can be shaped by geography, by language, by culture, by religion, by the local marketing office… And whether you call an entity a region, often depends on your perspective.

From my perspective, next to shared language, culture, religion, geography… a region really is a region, when its people decide they would like to belong together.

Lack of communication, geographic hurdles, even an unfortunate history can be overcome, when a region is based on shared values. And the values to which we have declared our commitment are those on which the EU is built.

Nevertheless, I hesitate to call the Western Balkans a true region, though it may be naturally shaped through geography. But geographic proximity is not enough. We need to be united, and I don’t mean only unity of purpose, but coordination and partnership.

The Western Balkans has not sailed smoothly through the last two decades either: we have seen our neighbours experience bloodshed, destruction and fragility, and we have had our own challenges as a young democracy. But we are beginning to understand one another, as well as the importance of valuing our differences and harnessing each other’s strengths.

Last November, the Prime Minister of Albania, made the first visit of an Albanian leader to Serbia since 1946. It was not easy but it helped to create the conditions for a normal relationship between Albania and Serbia, which is key for the democratic stability of the region and its advancement towards the EU.

But we should not forget that the EU of 2015 is fundamentally different from that of the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003, where the term Western Balkans was coined and the EU committed itself to embrace the region for good.

A quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall we are once again, in search of a new international order. At the same time, the process of reunification of our continent remains unfinished.

We live at a time when the principles and practices considered universally accepted after the end of the Cold War have been put into question. The European project, Europe, and its eastern and southern neighbours, are being shaken by security, energy, and humanitarian challenges.

In addition to that, the rhetoric on Europe has also been changing, now including: enlargement fatigue, Grexit, Brexit, west-east and north-south divisions.

Meanwhile, anti-EU platforms are gaining terrain and Islamophobia is playing in the hands of populist parties.  Where does this leave the Western Balkans?

Nonetheless, the citizens of the Western Balkans still identify with the European project. They believe in the principles of the EU and consider EU integration to be the only process that guarantees democratic transformation and socio-economic development. The EU is still the lodestone.

It is noteworthy that the orientation of the Western Balkans towards the EU has created also a degree of solidarity among our countries.

But how far does this Brussels-inspired solidarity go? The Ukraine crises showed that it has its limits where conflicting national interests and agendas come into play.

Albania has a record of 100% alignment with the EU in foreign policy; not all in the Western Balkans do. This means that we are not yet and we still do not act as a true region.

Europe faces a number of trials:

–  Challenges to a neighbour’s sovereignty, that don’t promise to end there;

–  Terrorism on the outskirts;

–  Radicalised individuals returning to spread their extremist ideologies in Europe;

–  Economic insecurity.

I understand growing scepticism about the EU comes from a fear of its failure. But I cannot help noticing the paradoxical discourse:

– in the Member States, the debate about the EU is all about fiscal consolidation, public expenditure, unemployment, immigration;

– seen from the outside, the EU remains the most appealing model for peace, democratic stability, social well-being and economic success.

If the Western Balkans is at peace now, this peace should not be taken for granted.

There are still frozen disputes and frozen democratic processes, which reinforce my view that our region is not yet a region.

But the risks of instability in the Western Balkans are serious, for both the region and for Europe.

The EU has the capacity to prevent the fragility of the Western Balkans from becoming instability.

Deeper integration within the Western Balkans and a new momentum to the EU accession process, will assure EU’s own security.

The crisis in Ukraine underlined the importance of safe and reliable energy supply, for the citizens and the economy of the EU.

The EU needs to secure its south-eastern flank, where regional flagship projects such as TAP and IAP can be instrumental. These two pipelines, in line with the EU Energy Security Strategy, will play an important role not only for energy efficiency and the diversification of energy resources, but also for the creation of a regional integrated market, which functions in compliance with the rules and standards of the EU.

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Neither the EU nor the Western Balkans can afford to be stuck in business as usual, with no strong instruments to support the region.

We cannot afford for the EU accession process to be a distant perspective. It must become a tangible certainty, for it is the only way to make sure that the policies of the European Commission and the engagements of the Member States pay-off.

Last August, German Chancellor Angela Merkel hosted a summit in Berlin with the Western Balkan countries. What we like to call “the Berlin Process”, is an opportunity to reinvigorate the EU accession process and help it remain a tool to transform the Western Balkans into a democratically stable and economically prosperous entity.

This coming August, the Berlin Process will continue with another summit in Vienna. Ahead of the summit, Albania is actively coordinating efforts to develop a coherent package of infrastructural projects that would enhance the region’s connectivity.

Regional interconnectivity can help release the growth potential that comes with geographic proximity. A better integrated region would accelerate and all inclusive growth, and narrow the gap between leaders and laggards. /ibna/

* The opinion of the author doesn’t necessarily represent IBNA’s editorial line