Hello Europe, anyone at home!

Piero Fassino

 With many dark clouds on the international horizon, the Balkans rarely catch the eye of political commentators and European chancelleries. Yet we all recall the horrific massacre in Srebrenica and the atrocities that devastated the territories of the Yugoslav federation just two decades ago, leading to its dissolution and the formation of countries scarred by war and bouts of ethnic cleansing. In order to ensure that the Dayton Peace Agreement did not foster further ethnic hatred and nationalistic conflicts, the international community decided to station 60,000 NATO troops in the Balkans, thanks to which the region has not been involved in wars for the last 20 years.

The European Union has committed itself to promoting an integration process for Balkan countries, and the European Council has attempted to accompany this process by promoting stability and reiterating statements to that end over the last two decades. This ultimately led to Slovenia’s accession to the EU in 2004, followed by Croatia in 2009. Association agreements have been developed with the other candidate countries, but no definite schedule for membership has been outlined.

By the same token, NATO has opened its doors to participation by Slovenia (2004), Croatia and Albania (2009) and Montenegro (2017), and established partnership relations with other countries in the area.

With a view towards building areas of integration and cooperation, the Central European Initiative (INCE) has now also been revived. Set up among the nations of central Europe following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the initiative was further enlarged to include all 18 central and southeastern European countries. And in 2000, following an Italian proposal, the Adriatic & Ionian Initiative was set up as a regional cooperation forum for countries facing onto the Adriatic. All this was done alongside very close bilateral relations with the countries in the region and especially with Germany, Italy and Austria. This very extensive network of communication and cooperation was designed to promote the integration of the Balkans within Euro-Atlantic institutions.

But the economic crisis that hit Europe and the upheaval experienced by the EU in recent years, combined with Brexit and the centripetal tendency of many Eastern European countries (made more complex by the crisis in the Ukraine and the management of migratory flows), have made the likelihood of Balkannation membership in the EU more problematic and uncertain and have caused regular postponement. Both the waves of Euroscepticism that have been washing over the European continent and the prospect of a multi-speed EU risk setting the European integration of the Balkans adrift. The lack of certainty has led to a gradually spreading frustration among the chancelleries of Balkan countries (and their public opinions), which has ultimately played into the hands of anti-European populists.

In fact, the goal of European integration is even more pressing today given the many critical issues affecting the region. Bosnia and Herzegovina, comprised of two federated entities and three national communities, is having a hard time coming to terms with its multi-ethnic identity and the complexity of its institutional organisation. Macedonia is suffering regular crises and instability owing to the problematic cohabitation of the Macedonian majority and the Albanian minority. And Albania, in spite of its significant economic development, is witnessing a fierce internal political battle between the two main political forces. Kosovo continues to be a ‘territorial state’ not accepted by Serbia, with which it engages in regular conflicts. And Serbia, whose history has always assigned it an important role in the region, wavers between the ambition to achieve European integration and a cultural and religious relationship as well as a sense of identity with the Slavic world and Moscow.

But there are some reassuring signals coming from the region, particularly the pro-European attitude of governments, the business community, intellectuals, academics and the young. Thus it is all the more important that the EU issues a very clear message, one that the countries’ governments and publics are eager to hear from Brussels: “We want you!”

Though complex in terms of implementation, European integration is ultimately the only strategic option left open for the Balkans if they are to achieve long-term political and economic stability. It is an area (we must remember) in which every population has historically conceived and pursued its fate in opposition to its neighbours. But one only needs to look at a map of the region to realise that the Balkans, bordering as they do with Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece (with Italy opposite), are effectively an enclave within the EU’s territory, despite not being members.

Thus the third annual summit of what has become known as the Berlin process (to be held on 12 July in Trieste) carries a deep significance and importance. First suggested by Germany to Italy, France and Austria with the involvement of all Balkan countries, the Berlin process was conceived as a political and economic cooperation tool for the specific purpose of promoting Balkan development and improving the countries’ standards to match European ones, an essential condition for EU integration. Along with the inter-governmental summit attended by the heads of government and the economics ministers in Trieste, a forum has also been organised regarding civil society with extensive involvement from trusts, associations, NGOs and civic movements as well as a business forum with the participation of companies, chambers of commerce and financial operators. The European inclusion of the Balkans calls for an act of democratic institution-building that must involve the players in civil society, strengthen the democratic fabric (still fragile in places), promote a widespread adoption of European values and establish a supranational culture of integration.

In such a context, a few European countries must take the lead. Italy has everything to gain from stability and integration in the region, owing to its territorial proximity, historic relations and prolific economic relations as well as for security reasons. It is the first or second economic partner for each of the countries in the region. Italian companies in the area are involved in every sector and are essential flywheels for development. Its proximity means that every dynamic in the Balkans affects Italy: security and stability in the region are vitally important to all. These are strong reasons why Italy is one of the main sponsors of the European integration of the Balkans, fighting to ensure that the Union doesn’t shirk its duties and provides definite schedules, procedures and set phases for the process. The commitment will be even more convincing if bilateral relations with Italy are simultaneously reinforced and expanded to include other nations in the region, thus providing tangible proof of the strategic value Italy assigns to the European integration of the Balkans.


This article is being published in Eastwest n. 72 (July / August '17)