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The Western Balkans and the EU: an Arranged Marriage.

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 10/03/2016 Enika Bushi

The Western Balkans are back in the EU agenda, perhaps a first intelligible step since the beginning of the migration crisis, as 'gatekeepers' and crossroads between East and West the Western Balkans can play a crucial role.
In the words of Bushati, Albanian Foreign Affairs Minister, the countries in the Western Balkans have moved "from being enemies into neighbors [however] a lot of energy is wasted on how we sit around the table and how [they] call each other." These transformations among the relations countries and people have in the Western Balkans can be attributed to the "clear perspective" of European integration and the political will of the leadership, in many of them to, at least, just get ahead in the process.
The Thessaloniki agenda for the Western Balkans, approved on June 2003 allowed all countries of the Western Balkans, the technical and financial instruments applied to EU member states. Moreover, fight against organized crime and general cooperation in strengthening the judiciary and domestic affairs; promotion of economic development; regional cooperation for the return of refugees, the promotion of cultural and education exchanges and social development were among the pillars of this agenda; the success of which was highly dependent on the will of interested countries in implementing reforms.
The EU reports showcase the region in getting closer to the Union. It counts four candidate countries and two potential candidates: Kosovo* has signed the Stabilization Association Agreement expected to enter into force later this year; Bosnia and Herzegovina has lately applied to join the EU. However, of the candidate countries, only Montenegro and Serbia have opened EU membership negotiations. Croatia has been the last member to join the Union in 2013 and since this last accession treaty signed conditionality requires a satisfactory track record of implementation of the acquis.
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The exodus to Europe resulted in undermining the principle of free movement and is challenging Schengen. Migration crisis was at the center of several high-level meetings, notably, La Valetta summit focused on the cooperation with third countries (Africa) and the Meeting on the Western Balkans Migration Route. The refugees cross from on external border of the EU - Greece - to transit in the region to reach northern EU member states. The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (fYRoM) has been among the countries directly affected by the crisis. The upcoming parliamentary election in April 2016 and tensions rising at the border with Greece urges a reactive caution. The High Representative Vice President of European Commission Mogherini visited Tirana last week all the while Tahiri, Albanian Minister of Home Affairs, mentioned the existence of a contingency plan should the need be to open the Albanian border to refugees.
The "euro bubble" technocrats have considered all the options and paid court to all possible players. Albania was hence, considered since early on last fall, as a route to re-direct the influx of refugees in the Adriatic. Should this option unfold in the days to come, one may only hope, not as much on the international organizations and governments alike, but in the strength and generosity of people. It would not be a first, for Albanians who demonstrated great humanity hosting 500,000 refugees during the war in Kosovo.
The focus on EU's approach has long focused on strengthening its external borders. Commissioner Hahn stressed that in retaining control of the influx of refugees to Europe would allow for a change in the process of how these migrants are reaching Europe and how State authorities are answering to the demands. Italy and Greece continue suffering a huge pressure - as entry points - hence the European Council agreed to relocate an amount of 40.000 persons to be distributed amongst different Member States. The current European legal framework on asylum - Dublin Regulations - no longer responds to the needs of EU Member States and those of asylum seekers. Some countries - Greece, Italy as entry points and German, Austria and Sweden as final destinations - bear the burden of the system. However, the procedures to review the applications are slow and it entails many dramatic family separations.
Nevertheless, an increased waive of populism has cashed in the fears caused by unemployment and overwhelmed welfare system preexistent the refugee crisis. Furthermore, the European migration policies suffered the linkage of increased security threat and the arrival of refugees despite calls from European leaders - notably Juncker - to avoid simplifications. Taking note of this, particularly worrisome is that the EU leadership seems to fail to understand that a long-term sustainable solution requires that borders are kept open and further find mechanisms that allow access to safety of persons seeking international protection.
The cooperation and readiness shown by the region has made for a case of arguing the 'ally' card versus the 'stability' card and prompting technocrats in Brussels to strongly (re)consider the success of enlargement policy. The 'sudden' reminder that the EU project cannot be complete without the integration of the Western Balkans might be shocking for 'euro-skeptics' and those suffering from a 'chronic' enlargement fatigue.
The EU and the Western Balkans are, hence, having an arranged marriage and will have to make it work. Much will depend on the way the EU will choose to maintain and strengthen the links with the region. It is time to show more carrots, more in terms of structural funds to support these candidates and potential candidates in getting ever closer to joining the EU. Most importantly, accept that in the complex Balkan's scene individuality of each and single state has to be taken into account. 'Integrate to integrate' can be a good marketing motto but may oversimplify a reality that historically has all but ever been simple. It ultimately may define the results in the multi-crisis game at hand, which cannot altogether be delinked from the European future. Perhaps, proving once more, famous Churchill's saying: the Balkans produce more history than they can consume.

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