April 28 2009
With the European Union buffeted by economic crisis, constitutional arguments and worries about relations with Russia, it would be easy for its leaders to overlook the formal EU membership bid from little Albania. Easy but wrong. The Union’s eastward enlargement is among its greatest successes; it must be enhanced by embracing the fragile states of the western Balkans, including Albania.
Tirana’s move comes just days after EU states accepted an entry application from neighbouring Montenegro. Albania may have to wait a few months for a go-ahead as Brussels will quite rightly wish to see that the June parliamentary election takes place in line with EU standards. But barring mishaps both countries should soon begin the arduous business of multi-year entry negotiations.
All this is welcome: Brussels must keep enlargement moving at a time when it faces serious obstacles.
Turkey and Croatia, the two countries now in membership talks, have run into difficulties. With Turkey, there is a fundamental lack of EU political will that has generated disenchantment in Ankara. With Croatia, the main problem is a petty border dispute with Slovenia, over which Ljubljana is needlessly blocking Zagreb’s progress.
The four remaining western Balkans territories – Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo – all face challenges before they can even start entry talks. Serbia must capture Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb wartime general wanted for genocide; Bosnia must show greater cohesion among its divided ethnic communities; Macedonia must settle a name dispute with Greece; and Kosovo must win greater recognition of its independence.
All the would-be members, not least Albania, must also do more to fight crime and corruption. It will not be easy – but it would be even harder without EU membership prospects.
Meanwhile, the EU must put its house in order. The Lisbon treaty must win approval in the repeat Irish referendum this year. Otherwise, there will be no legal room for new entrants, except Croatia. The EU should also generate more public backing for the Balkan enlargement. It must be sold as a modest rounding-out of the 2004-07 enlargement, as it brings in states already surrounded by EU members.
It is a hard sell in an economic crisis. But it should not be impossible. The western Balkans have since the Yugoslav wars been largely the EU’s responsibility. Preparing the region for accession is the only rational way of finishing the job of securing its peace and prosperity.