EU enlargement: don’t miss Western Balkans integration

Employment and Social Affairs

The EU is facing two opposite trends. On the one hand it has to face with the anti-EU movements spreading in many EU countries, due to a kind of populist opinion over the economic crisis and over the immigration issue. On the other hand, the EU enlargement remains one of the biggest objectives that is still remarkably shared by European citizens. Even during these difficult times, one of the top priorities for Brussels should remain the EU integration of Western Balkans.

Albeit the Balkans are surrounded by some EU countries, the region still lies like an island of incomplete transition in the earth of the geographical concept of Europe. Twenty years ago, the Western Balkans were torn by conflicts. Since then, they have undergone a major economic transformation over the past 15 years. They have transitioned towards market based systems, privatized many inefficient state owned enterprises, rapidly adopted modern banking systems, and enhanced the external orientation of their economies.

The perspective of the EU integration is crucial in this political and economic reform trend.  In 1999, the EU Council established the Stabilisation and Association Process: it was confirmed that the Western Balkans countries would be eligible for EU membership if they met the criteria established at the Copenhagen European Council in 1993. The EU enlargement policy also includes financial assistance, funded mainly through the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (Ipa).

Each autumn, the Commission adopts its annual Enlargement Strategy and Progress Reports on individual countries. Montenegro has taken further steps in accession negotiations. The opening of accession negotiation in January 2014 is a turning point in the EU’s relations with Serbia. The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Fyrom) is coming out from a long lasting political crisis, through a political agreement brokered by Commissioner Johannes Hahn, but concerns remain as regards freedom of expression and media. Albania made relevant progress, but still has to face with reform in the economic sphere and in fighting corruption. Bosnia and Herzegovina has to tackle urgent socio-economic reforms and to progress on its European agenda, in order to shrink its high unemployment rate.

In these days the Balkans are closely followed by international media due to the immigration along the “Balkan route”: refugees from the Middle East try to reach the EU by crossing Fyrom and Serbia. This immigration crisis could highlight even another reason to consider the integration of the Western Balkans as an unmissable chance for the European Union. Indeed, accepting Bosnia into the EU would mean that for the first time the Union would contain Member States with a majority of muslim citizens. That would represent the strongest message that differences between communities are never too great to be bridged. This could be very challenging and requires a great effort, but it is an essential step to complete the European project.

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