ROME – Twenty years after the collapse of Yugoslavia and the communist regime in Albania, the western Balkans region is at a turning point once again. Slovenia is in the European Union, Croatia is very close to membership, and all of the region’s other countries have started along the EU path. Yet there remains a danger that this positive progress can still be undermined.
Indeed, although EU integration is already bringing democracy and stability to the countries of the Balkans, it is an unfinished job, and completing that task is both vital and uncertain. The current economic crisis is leading public opinion in the western Balkans to lose confidence that peace and economic growth are still within reach, creating the risk of a possible slowdown in the integration process.
As a whole, the region has made notable progress. Pro-European governments are now in place across the Balkans. The recent elections in Bosnia show that the electorate is still ethnically oriented. It is our task – with the support of the new Bosnian leadership – to redirect this approach to a genuine European mindset. Democratic reforms are proving to be an increasingly effective cure for the instability created in the past by nationalism and ethnic strains. The key issue is to ensure that the western Balkans keeps its focus on the European agenda, which means that the EU must provide guidance and encouragement through tangible initiatives.
That is why, at the EU-United States summit held in Prague last year, I proposed an eight-pronged initiative, elements of which have now been fully or partially taken up, including the Conference held in Sarajevo last June where the EU reiterated its commitment to the integration process of the Balkans region as whole. New EU membership applications confirm the desire of Balkan governments to engage seriously in internal reforms. But the road to EU membership involves painful sacrifice, so each country should be judged on its own merits. From its part, Europe is delivering as soon as the counties are adopting the necessary reforms.