May 24, 2016
Guest blog post by Alba Xhixha, Western Balkans specialist, Senior Communications and EU Affairs Manager at Aspect Consulting .
It has become something of a truism over the years to say that the Western Balkan region is often associated with war and animosity. Of course, it is true that ethnic tensions flare up from time to time as some leaders embrace nationalist agendas to cover up their own failings. Others, become increasingly authoritarian, undermining electoral processes and the overall state of democracy- as it is now happening in Macedonia where the Parliament recently called off the general elections scheduled for 5 June as most parties threatened to boycott the vote- criticising the government for failing to create a conducive environment for free and fair elections.
But it is not all doom and gloom in that part of the world. Kosovo is a prime example of a stubbornly pro-EU country where the aspiration for EU accession is pushing the country to transform itself. While Brexit supporters claim that the UK vote may have a knock-on effect on other Member States or even unravel the European Union as a whole, Kosovo is undertaking reforms to meet the political and economic acquis to join the Union.
Undoubtedly, Kosovo’s EU journey will be a long one, but great things have small beginnings. It recently signed a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA), an important milestone for the EU-Kosovo relationship that will help the country continue much needed reforms and stimulate economic growth and job creation. Such agreements have already had a positive effect on other countries in the region, who have seen trade volumes increase by an average of 36% and trade deficits reduced by 4% within five years following SAA adoption.
Despite the many challenges facing the country, EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn praised Kosovo for ‘demonstrating its ability to deliver on key reform measures’ during the very first EU-Kosovo SAA Conference held in Pristina on 17 May. Kosovo authorities have had to make some painful decisions following recommendations from the EU and the international community. For instance, the government pressed ahead and reached historic agreements with Serbia in the face of strong domestic criticism and theParliament voted in favour of constitutional amendments to establish the Specialist Chambers, which will prosecute war-time crimes, hitherto a taboo for Kosovars.
Reforms are undoubtedly already yielding concrete results. On 4 May, the European Commission recommended waiving visa requirements for Kosovars, lifting them from isolation as all the other countries in the region enjoyed visa-free travel within the Schengen area. This would benefit Kosovo and the EU in a number of ways as collaboration in the areas of business, tourism, R&D, technology and education is likely to increase. More importantly, it will give Kosovars a sense of belonging and inclusion and send out a message of hope to a country that has witnessed so much despair.
This month, Kosovo has also a seen dramatic breakthrough in European and World Football associations, UEFA and FIFA. Sports diplomacy is exceptionally important for Kosovo as a means to consolidate its international standing and secure recognition by countries which have so far failed to do so. Ironically, if Kosovo qualifies for the 2018 World Cup, it will make its grand debut in Russia, one of the staunchest opponents of Kosovo’s independence. But such is the beauty of politics.
Albania is also a positive story in the region. Led by Edi Rama, a charismatic artist turned Prime Minister, Albania has seen great progress in the last few years. Indeed, EBRD ranked Albania as the country with the highest number of reforms in the region in 2014. Yet, the biggest challenge facing the current government remains the judiciary system, which Prime Minister Rama has vowed to reform this year. If he succeeds, Albania will likely start the EU accession negations. All eyes are now on him.
These achievements are, in part, thanks to EU’s ongoing involvement in the region. The traditional carrot and stick policy seems to have largely worked. The societies there are now safer, more open and more prosperous than a decade or two ago. Occasionally some political leaders do drag their countries to a political impasse or worse, but eventually the countries get back on track and reach a compromise, often facilitated by the EU. The Union provides a model for them that – despite its many failings – still lights their way. Let there be more EU engagement in the region, not less.Blogactiv Team