The European Future of the Balkans - Economic and Social Issues Count

Posted in Europe | 21-Apr-08 | Author: Hannes Swoboda

The International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) in Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses events in the Middle East and the Balkans. Hannes Swoboda, Member of the European Parliament, member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the EP, the Vice-President of the PSE/PES Group and the vice-president of the European Parliament's delegation for relations with south-east Europe as well as the rapporteur of the European Parliament for Croatia, in his contribution " The European Future of the Balkans - Economic and Social Issues Count" elaborates the successes and weak points of the EU policy towards the Western Balkans as well as points out the economic competitiveness of the region and its social problems. His contribution is published in its entirety.

The European Union has continuously taken very clear decisions regarding the future of the (West-) Balkans. Not only have they been decided upon at the Council summit of Saloniki in 2003, but also in the Parliament in its many resolutions and in the Commission in its many communications. So everything should be clear and only a question of time.

I think that things are not as easy as they seem. On the one hand the EU could do more to enhance the prospect of a European future to the Balkans and on the other hand the countries of the region should and must do more to prepare themselves. I do not want to say that our policies in South-Eastern Europe are not successful. We managed many crises well and we can be proud of our actions. But we still have no comprehensive overall strategy concerning the economic and social development of this region. This is the reason why some of us proposed a Ljubljana process for the region parallel to the Lisbon process within the present European Union. We must increase the economic competitiveness of the Balkan countries and at the same time tackle the enormous social problems. Without such an economic and social programme we will never be able to combat the nationalistic tendencies and ethnic strive which seem to have manifested themselves in the countries of that region.

The present Slovene presidency is a promising chance for that country and the European Union to develop such a comprehensive and long lasting strategy. No European country can afford to wait and thus must enhance its competitiveness for “better” times. The improvement of the infrastructure, the strengthening of education systems, and investing in research and development is not only important for economically more advanced countries but also pivotal for the Balkan countries. Nobody should loose time and the opportunities to work towards the improvement of their economic and social welfare. In order to help these countries we also need greater openness to its people, something that can be achieved through the inclusion of a more liberal visa policy. The exchange of knowledge and people is an important contribution to the development of all our neighbours.

Europe can and must help take these steps as it is also in our own interest. But the main task must be undertaken by the countries and societies themselves. They must overcome their traditional infighting, their ethnic divisions, and their clear lines of between “us” and “them”. They need to modernise their heavily outdated political attitudes and systems. I do not want to repeat the famous Clinton words from the first election campaign: "it's the economy, stupid”, but somewhat modified we could say: “it’s the economic and social issues, which count and not the ethnic divisions”. This message must be repeated again and again. Having said that, I do not deny the significance of cultural, ethnic and religious factors. On the contrary, one should not neglect these issues because such neglect could potentially overlook existing tensions. However, the aim of the “cultural” policies must be to reconcile different propensities and to create mutual respect. Yet again, unemployment and poverty reinforce nationalistic tendencies and hate speech and thus these two factors should be the main target of our common policies.

Parallel to that regional approach individual negotiations on the Stabilisation and Association Agreements and accession to the EU must be continued. However, it must be clear that the accession criteria have to be fully accepted which include the Copenhagen Criteria and full cooperation with the International Tribunal in The Hague. If countries fulfill these criteria they must be able to proceed. In that respect Croatia has a big chance to conclude its negotiations with the EU in 2009. As rapporteur of the European Parliament for that country I would have wished for Croatia to have done everything to conclude the negotiations already at the end of 2008. However, as so often some overriding “national interests” such as the decision on the ecological fisheries zone, superseded the utter importance of a faster negotiation process.

Furthermore it is important that Croatia is ready to solve all its problems with its neighbours. But it is equally important that the neighbours including Slovenia are ready to help to overcome the existing issues. Arbitration or mediation by a third party are the most helpful methods to solve outstanding problems between neighbours. One should bear in mind that accession of Croatia to the Union between 2011 and 2012 following the consent of the European Parliament to the negotiated treaty and the national ratification processes in all member countries would be the best sign to the whole region of the Balkans. It would give new and continued hope as countries that have completed their home-work can accede to the European Union.

Ljubljana, 21 April 2008

International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) - Ljubljana

Bakhtyar Aljaf
Zijad Becirovic, M.Sc.