By Edi Rama*
Eighteen years ago, at the 2003 European Union-Western Balkans Summit in Thessaloniki, we were told, “the future of the Balkans is within the European Union.” The EU has since reiterated its “unequivocal support” to the European perspective of Western Balkans countries, as summits are now held every year and the same statements reiterated. But it might as well still be 2003.
Back then, the EU’s watchword was “enlargement.” Now, Europe’s unequivocal support looks to have become contingent, and perhaps the bloc’s internal squabbles mean that the promise of enlargement must be temporarily shelved. However, we are not simply waiting for the EU. We are getting ready for it and are creating opportunities for our people.
I believe that Albanians are among the most pro-EU communities in Europe. When communism collapsed and we were free to choose our path, we chose Brussels. Since then, we have done everything asked of us in our membership application. The EU may be unable to deliver on its promises, but Albania is still committed to European ideals, and we will likely remain faithful to its founding principles, even after its own members have left them behind.
Our future generations deserve to enjoy the rewards of membership, but we are hostage to the same historic forces of division the EU was created to eliminate. The EU must recognize that it is losing face with its staunchest defenders, while our progress to membership is blocked by just one strange collateral veto — Bulgaria.
The same uncertainty applies to North Macedonia too — which has gone so far as to change its name — and to visa liberalization for the citizens of Kosovo, who are now less free to travel than before, even though they have fulfilled all of the EU’s requirements.
But if the Western Balkans cannot come to the EU, perhaps the EU can come to the Western Balkans. There are concrete steps that can be taken immediately. The EU can set up mechanisms of cooperation that efficiently establish some of the two-way benefits of membership, without raising the indignation of those opposed to our accession.
To this end, the EU can support the region economically through its Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans, for which a few projects have already been identified. But more must be done, especially to ensure that the region participates fully in the EU’s digital and green transitions. These transitions are required for full participation in European economies, and we risk being left behind.
The EU can also help us retain our brightest minds with joint higher education programs and integration into the EU education system, so that young people can find better opportunities at home.
Western Balkans nations could also be included in the EU’s emergency plans, as together we are facing a potentially devastating energy crisis that could undo years of progress in the region. We must ensure that our citizens are not left vulnerable.
Finally, the EU can take practical steps, so that we can faster implement the four freedoms of the EU — the free movement of goods, capital, services and people — in our three countries of Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia. This is something all Western Balkans countries will have to do if we are going to join the single market, and the World Bank has said that doing so could add up to 10 percent to the GDP of each of our countries.
The three of us call this effort the Open Balkan Initiative, and it is something we have already started on by owning the spirit and principles of the Berlin Process. We hope to begin the free movement of goods in January 2022 and open our borders by January 2023. And it goes without even saying that Open Balkans is open to all the Western Balkans countries anytime they make up their mind to join.
This idea moves forward on the agenda that has been repeated since Thessaloniki and that forms the tangible shapes of the Berlin Process, announced in 2014. We continue to support and participate in both processes, but we do not want to wait until others say that they are ready.
We want results — to make reforms and have our people receive the benefits. Support for this initiative would show that the EU is serious about the Berlin Process itself, and we would welcome technical help to ensure that we are meeting the EU’s technical and regulatory standards.
We hope that the EU and our other friends, in London and Washington, join us and encourage others in the region to move forward as well. This is how we build support here and show that we are ready to be closer to Europe.
As the nations of the Western Balkans, we must look to our future — not a future that never materializes, but one that we can control. A citizen born in 2003 is now old enough to vote, to be a full member of their political community, whereas we are still waiting to join ours. The last thing we want is for our 18-year-old commitment to drift aimlessly toward middle age. /politico.eu
*Edi Rama is Prime Minister of Albania and Chairman of the ruling Socialist Party