The European Journey

Hard work and hard choices await countries of the western Balkans that are serious about their EU aspirations.

The European Journey

Hard work and hard choices await countries of the western Balkans that are serious about their EU aspirations.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

The countries of the western Balkans are getting closer to the European Union. Soon it will be five years since the EU opened up the European perspective for its south-eastern neighbours through the Stabilisation and Association process, and since I took up the post as High Representative for EU Common Foreign and Security Policy. Looking back, the achievements in the region are truly remarkable.

Recent violence in Kosovo should not hide the fact that the level of tension is much lower than before. Authoritarian regimes have disappeared and democratically elected leaders cooperate closely with each other. And instead of remaining mired in past politics, governments and parliaments have started to work on reform agendas of the future, allowing progress to be made in the process of integration into the EU.

However, where is light there is also shadow. Not everyone has yet turned their backs on the old ethnic and political divisions. Reforms are often not rapid or vigorous enough. Organised crime remains powerful. And tragically, the region in less than one year has lost two of its most visionary leaders: Zoran Djindjic and Boris Trajkovski, both of them personal friends of mine and friends of a European agenda for their countries.

The choice that people and politicians are now facing all over the region is whether they are serious about their European aspirations, whether the challenges on the European agenda can be overcome and whether they can muster the necessary resolve and tenacity to start closing the gap in terms of reform and reconciliation with the rest of Europe.

Croatia is the forerunner. A Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU is under ratification and on April 20 the European Commission, in response to an application for EU membership, recommended that negotiations for accession to the union should be opened. However, significant challenges remain ahead for Croatia if it is to fulfil the so called Copenhagen criteria for membership. Among other things, it has to make additional efforts in the field of minority rights, maintain full cooperation with the Hague war crimes tribunal, and continue to ensure that legislation approximates to the EU “acquis”.

In Serbia and Montenegro, the situation is more complex. In Belgrade, the new Serbian government must try to re-engage decisively with the European agenda. Full cooperation with the tribunal will continue to be an important requirement. The potential is great, but all democratic forces must contribute constructively if the largest country in the region is to make tangible progress on its path towards the EU. The next step will be the opening of negotiations on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement.

In Kosovo, recent violence was clearly a setback for everyone. The immediate priorities must now be to ensure security, to reconstruct destroyed property and to bring those responsible to justice. Political leaders must demonstrate their responsibility and commitment in achieving the standards. The EU remains strongly engaged in all efforts to consolidate stability, bring prosperity and build a democratic and multi-ethnic Kosovo, in accordance with UN Resolution 1244.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, we have seen some important progress on reforms, but the pace will have to increase considerably if the country is to meet conditions for the opening of negotiations of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement this year. Political leaders must live up to new challenges as the era of Brussels gradually replaces the era of Dayton. The focus must be on the future, not the past.

In the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, developments since the crisis in 2001 have been positive. Stability has returned and many aspects of the Ohrid Framework Agreement are being implemented. The first Stabilisation and Association Agreement signed with the EU entered into force after its ratification on April 1 this year. A week earlier, on March 22, the country submitted its application for EU membership. The challenge will be to ensure that this application is transformed into a strong momentum for reform. This would be the best tribute that the country could pay to its late president.

In Albania, which is currently negotiating a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the union, the government must reinvigorate its commitment to reform in order to ensure its progress on the European agenda is not hampered.

The journey to Europe will inevitably be long. Hard work and hard choices await those countries that are serious about their European aspirations. But their neighbours in Central and Eastern Europe have clearly shown both that it is possible to reach the final destination and that the process of rapprochement can be as important as the event of joining itself.

While only the countries of the region can determine the pace of this journey, the EU will do its utmost to help. Through the EU Police Missions in Sarajevo and Skopje, as well as through our readiness to deploy a military force after SFOR, we have stepped up our efforts to deal with the remaining problems of the past. With a reinforced Stabilisation and Association process decided at last year's summit in Thessaloniki, we are strengthening and focusing our assistance on handling the challenges of the future.

The EU is gearing all its instruments towards helping the countries of the western Balkans move towards accession. The future of the western Balkans, as we stated in Thessaloniki, lies within an enlarged EU.

Javier Solana is EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy.

Support our journalists