The EU and Western Balkans: From parasitism, to symbiosis

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times March 2, 2018 14:28

The EU and Western Balkans: From parasitism, to symbiosis

By Sidonja Manushi

During a recent top-notch, EU-related conference in Brussels, I was once again positively struck by the idealism with which EU officials in particular speak concerning the union: Its future, its values, its enlargement, its survival, its ability to self-reflect and do better, and so on and so forth.

I need go no further than Jean-Claude Juncker’s — president of the European Commission since 2014 — opening speech at the conference.

Juncker dedicated much of his stage time to talk about Europe’s response to the refugee crisis, its ability to pick itself up after facing populist/nationalist challenges, its decision to define goals before talking financial numbers and — to many of the Brits’ in the room disappointment — minimally of the Brexit and considerably of the Western Balkans (WB) accession aspirations.

There is no doubt, based on the narrative one hears in such events, the EU is truly set to take the Western Balkans in. It might take a longer time than we, the people, would like, and more reforms than the politicians have imagined, but we are ultimately heading towards Brussels.

So, for someone who has far too much time in their hands while sitting through these conferences, the concern naturally arises: who is thinking of the bigger picture? Is anyone thinking of the bigger picture?

A growing suspicion in Albania is that the EU is tied to the Western Balkans only by security concerns and geopolitical reasons.

According to this rhetoric, the EU is interested in WB countries because it needs to preserve stability in a historically war-stricken peninsula so a second Srebrenica never happens, and to deflect Russian-Turkish-Chinese influences in a geopolitically coveted region.

If this is really the case, the stability achieved to allow membership will be superficial, and in turn, short-lived. One would argue, the EU should know better.

If this is really the case, WB countries and Europe should jointly start working on making the WB as beneficial to the EU, as the EU will be to the WB.

One of the panels attended after Juncker’s inspirational speech was titled Western Balkans: the Black Hole of Europe.

The definition of a black hole is “a region of space having a gravitational field so intense that no matter or radiation can escape.”

The perception in the auditorium was negative. Is the WB going to suck the life out of the EU? Definitely, many believe so. And since no one wants a Greece or Italy financial crisis scenario to happen again with the weak WB states, there is no doubt WB integration is viewed skeptically, and dealt with hastily – as something that has been imposed by external union interests that have nothing to do with the development of WB states themselves and that won’t have any long-term benefits for the EU.

Objectively acknowledging this means the narrative can be changed. But what can be done to change this, and is the EU working on the long-term vision of making the WB beneficial to the EU?

For those hoping the long and winding road to EU membership itself will be the road to value and rule of law, chances are they’re in for disappointment. The road to EU membership consists of plentiful homework and extracurricular assignments, but don’t students usually forget everything they’ve learned once the exam is over?

Then there’s the obvious no-brainer suggested by economists and financial experts alike — to avoid a financial crisis, Albania should find its own pace once a EU member and refrain from chasing the speed of other, more powerful and financially secure WB states.

This consists of staying out of the Eurozone, as adapting the Euro could find Albania’s economy unprepared. It would also be out of the Schengen area for a while as it strengthens its abilities to fully protect its borders. In addition, the country would have to create enough of a good employment climate to avoid going through a brain-drain from the country’s youth leaving for better future opportunities in the EU once it becomes a member.

But the lasting, the really lasting policies, are yet to be found — and funded.

For Albania to be beneficial to the EU, the free-flow of human capital should be able to contribute to the European market with professionals, experts, and educated people who could represented the country not only in the workforce, but also in intellectual and high-profile jobs.

This can only be achieved through deep educational reforms that teach human rights, rule of law, ethical and moral business running from the start – reforms which can be achieved with the help of international partners who have been enacting such policies in their countries for a long time, and have yielded desired results.

Educational reforms should in turn empower universities in Albania, value professors and generate content that teaches students on the long-term and thus, gives them priority over students graduating abroad.

Albania’s youth population should come out of the educational sector as prepared as their European counterpart and, so far, it is far behind.

On the other hand, Europeans will be drawn to Albania only when the business climate is clear, transparent and free of corruption and bribery. Though it is unrealistic to claim such aspects will ever fully disappear, it would be beneficial for the country to have a strong, independent media that could report on violations and factfully inform those interested of the strong and weak developments in the country.

So far, the media in the country is also far behind compared to its European counterparts.

And so, instead of thinking of WB as a black hole from which the EU cannot, and maybe does not want to, escape, but still sees with fear and scepticism, the EU and WB countries alike should work to reform areas that take more time and effort to give results, but which, ultimately, help all actors involved to better themselves, and Europe.


Tirana Times
By Tirana Times March 2, 2018 14:28