Western Balkans' solo tango

The EU should come with a clear stand on the accession process

Photo: Maria Koleva Western Balkans between hope and reality, was the title of the high-level international conference

It takes two to tango: the Western Balkans between hope and reality, was the title of the high-level international conference, held at TownHall Europe in Brussels and organised by Friends of Europe, a leading think tank.

In the debates took part EU and national policymakers, government officials, representatives from business and international organisations and leading academics.

Accession perspectives, challenges on the economic front, women's place in the labour market, millennials and education, digital transformation, reconciliation, were among the topics discussed at the forum.

This 20th in a row European policy summit comes a month and a half after the surprising decision of the European Council to postpone the start of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, exposing EU's indecision and confusing signals about its engagement.

This move disheartened Skopje and Tirana and its gruff tone echoed in the other four states in the region, also dreaming for their passionate tango with the EU. As it was mentioned, this situation also worried EU countries which fear a further loss of European clout and influence in the region. The Western Balkans don't like a solo tango. They want a reliable partner.

Now all are waiting to see what the Croatian Presidency of the Council in first half of 2020 can do to make a restart of the process possible. The incoming rotating presidency has promised to put the Western Balkans higher on the EU agenda.

The moderator of the conference, Shada Islam, Director of Europe and Geopolitics at Friends of Europe, said the EU's biggest geopolitical test lies in the Western Balkans. She added also that Europe's credibility, reputation and reliability are at stake.

“For almost twenty years, EU policymakers sought to keep the six Western Balkan aspirants on track to join, but without setting firm deadlines. Western Balkan governments and people are increasingly impatient and frustrated,” she stressed.

Regional cooperation can be successful when all countries, all economies in the region come to a common understanding that together we stand, but divided we can fall, underlined Majlinda Bregu, Secretary-General of the Regional Cooperation Council, adding that political disputes can spill over the process of regional cooperation.

Saying that this moment is maybe the biggest crisis in the EU-Western Balkans political standings since 1999, she emphasised that it is time to end pretence and that the EU should honour its Treaty and come with a clear stand on the accession process of the Western Balkans.

She expressed thanks to the new EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for clearly articulating the vision of Europe as a continent. We hope this will be the goal and approach of all EU Member States, Ms Bregu said, noting that “we in the region need to roll up our sleeves and embark fully on our reform agendas, beyond the bitterness and disappointment that is present in the region”.

The Secretary-General of the Regional Cooperation Council also focused on the importance of youth and interlinkage of their perspective, stating that 61% of young people from the region support EU integration. At the same time, also 61% of them are ready to leave it if they don't see clear, improved standards at their homes, she asserted, explaining that building up the regional economic area is giving young people a possibility to travel freely within the region.

Almost three years since Kosovo met all 95 criteria for visa liberalisation - nearly twice as many as other countries in the region, the lack of decisions is a result of divisions within the EU and not a failure of Kosovo, the country's president, Hashim Thaci, recalled.

He stated as well that there is no politician in the country that can answer to the youth why there is no visa liberalisation. This is a political decision that has to be taken in Brussels and it depends on the Member States, he pointed out, opining that Europe - being late with North Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo - it only encourages nationalism and populism.

Whilst everyone has their frustrations, I think my take away is the hope and drive of all of our speakers to push for reconciliation, opportunities for youths and justice for all, one of the participants tweeted.

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