Tsipras: The EU must make a brave decision on the Balkans

Tsipras: The EU must make a brave decision on the Balkans

With an article at the Financial Times, Alexis Tsipras calls the European Council to invite North Macedonia in the coming days to begin the process of formal talks on its accession to the European Union. EU’s decision will be critical, not only for the country and regional stability, but also for Europe itself, its credibility and what it represents, the former Greek Prime Minister notes.

The complete article of Alexis Tsipras in the Financial Times:

In the next few days, the European Council will decide whether to invite North Macedonia to open formal talks to join the EU.

That decision will show whether the bloc can be as courageous as the young, dynamic Balkan country that is knocking on its door. The choice will be whether to anchor North Macedonia and the western Balkans firmly to the EU, or risk plunging them into a new crisis and giving the signal that painful reforms are not rewarded.

The EU’s decision — already postponed once — will be crucial not only for the country and regional stability, but for what it says about Europe itself, its reliability and what it stands for.

The EU has an opportunity to prove it is a confident force for peace and economic growth. A decision to start accession talks would be a strong response to the forces aiming to sink Europe — and the Balkans — back into nationalism, unilateralism and fragmentation.

After all, the Prespa agreement, signed on June 17 last year by the foreign ministers of Greece and North Macedonia, Nikos Kotzias and Nikola Dimitrov, did more than unlock the prospect of EU membership for the latter. It highlighted the importance of the European project itself, in one of its most difficult moments.

When prime minister Zoran Zaev of North Macedonia and I crossed the border between our countries on Lake Prespa that day, the most humbling thought we shared was of the many lives lost on its shores. Many forget that the dispute that divided us for 27 years had its roots in two bloody Balkan wars that were fought over the division of the geographical area of Macedonia. It spanned both world wars, the Greek civil war and the cold war.

Reaching the agreement required strong political will, arduous diplomatic efforts and a level of mutual respect and frank dialogue that we had to nurture and protect through many difficult turns. The prospect of accession to the EU was an integral part of the talks and a strong force in garnering support for the deal.

Our success highlights the importance of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. The UN Special Envoy, Matthew Nimetz, played a vital role that reflects that body’s enduring capacity in conflict-resolution. The agreement did not come as a result of defeat in war, coercion, intervention by third parties, or unilateral steps.

But there were times in history when such developments were not far off. So, we cannot become complacent about the regional challenges Europe faces. Between 2014 and 2017, we all saw the consequences of the decision to put a freeze on further enlargement of the EU.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has rightly warned: “If we don’t succeed in making the western Balkans new member states, we will again experience the same problems we saw in the 1990s.” Their integration “is an investment in the EU’s security, economic growth and influence,” he said.

Fortunately, the recognition of this reality led the EU to reaffirm its support for the “Thessaloniki agenda” — agreed in 2003 — of gradual integration of the western Balkans into the union at a summit in Sofia in May 2018.

Moreover, starting accession talks would signal support for two countries’ peoples who resolved an international dispute while overcoming other great obstacles. By mid-2017, North Macedonia had survived a deep — and sometimes violent — political crisis, with an inter-ethnic dimension. Greece endured Europe’s worst economic crisis and implemented EU-IMF backed austerity measures with severe economic and social consequences.

In 2015-16, both countries faced the biggest European refugee crisis since the second world war. Greece has come out of the economic crisis while establishing itself as a pillar of peace and stability in its turbulent region. North Macedonia has fulfilled commitments on minority rights issues, has contributed to good neighbourly relations and regional stability and has made reforms relate to its judiciary, public administration and the fight against organised crime, according to a 2019 European Commission Report.

At this very crucial time, a positive decision by the EU would clearly signal to the peoples of Europe, the Balkans and beyond that carrying out brave reforms, rejecting nationalism and compromising to resolve differences on the basis of mutual respect is worth the cost.

The period in European history when the Balkans were a catalyst for division and war is over. It is time for our region to become a catalyst for peace. It can be the symbol of European vision and strength that our common project needs today, more than ever./ibna

Source: Financial Times