Thinking about the relation of the European Union (EU) with the Western Balkans (WB), foreign policy orientation and priorities of the WB and support toward EU, besides of occasional populist speeches we hear - suggesting alternative paths, is almost unambiguous. Hence, I was always wondering how the EU perceives us. Does our region represent a risk or rather an opportunity for the EU and its member states? How are priorities set? What do we have in common? Does the Western Balkan belong to the family of European values? My research and experience have led me to two arguments why the Western Balkan actually provides an opportunity for the EU to become an actor that would be capable of fulfilling its global mission based on its values. Therefore, the decision of the EU to turn the enlargement policy toward the Western Balkans into a successful story would be a litmus paper, reflecting the success of the EU project itself. I am writing this blog to highlight the arguments underpinning my statement.
It seems to be rather easy to explain the benefits of the membership to the EU, or privileges of belonging to the club. For many Balkan states, it would be a historical momentum to sit at the table where decisions about their destiny are made. Equally important, looking from the angle of citizens “Europe without borders” would permit them to take advantage of free movement, allowing them to work, study, and sell product across the continent, consequently obtaining a chance to engage with all European countries. On the other hand, when measuring the effects of the enlargement policy, imminent benefits for the EU stemming from accession need to be reconsidered. Regarding this side of the coin, the WB belonging to the system of values on which the EU was founded and its accession to the EU is of crucial importance.
The values that the EU and the Western Balkans share, namely, solidarity, democracy, human rights, equality, represent civilization step forward. The role of these universal values is to ensure peaceful coexistence, to prevent tensions and conflict. Moreover, differences and divisiveness of values, specific to a different part of the old continent, are not dangerous, on the contrary, they are creating a rich cultural heritage for the benefit of all. Therefore, the EU, by welcoming the authenticity of the Balkan and its rich traditions, customs, ideological heritage, would turn circumstance into opportunity, mirrors into windows. By preserving cultural heritage and promoting cultural diversity, the EU would give roots to what it means to be “European”, in all its diversity.
Conversely, a change in discourse, and simple abandonment of this concept- glorifying diversity and values on which the EU project itself is based on, could potentially lead to the system`s collapse. Therefore, despite numerous structural issues within the EU, successful enlargement policy would mean more than the strengthening of the relationship between the EU and the WB, but would also be an indicator that the EU has managed to restructure and consolidate internally, therefore, regaining its credibility and old splendor.
Another important aspect is about the role of how young, educated people from the region are able to contribute to the overall development of the Union. The EU diploma by itself represents a value and is especially valuable for the sake of obtaining different benefits regarding studies, as well as on the labor market. Education that young people can acquire through WB education systems is broad and comprehensive, providing for an outstanding basis for further improvements and upgrade. When I got the Erasmus + scholarship to study in Rome, two years ago, beside of indicative results achieved during my studies in Podgorica and Belgrade, I was little worried. Instead of facing challenges beyond coping with academic curricula, I understood the comparative benefits WB educational systems are providing us within the process of our academic formation. Actually, only after spending time with my colleges from all over the world, I become aware of the high level of my general knowledge about geography, history or some natural science, which is pretty atypical for the people outside Balkan, whose academic focus is not these fields. I also figured out, that our system lacks “upgrade” some western systems can offer us.
That is why it is so important for young generations to have the ability to study all around Europe, to have exchange programs. By gaining this kind of experience we are becoming more flexible and able listen to the impulses of future but especially this way we can learn from one another and strengthen the European bond. As a result, in the future, we are contributing to a more educated society in general, stronger economic development and leadership in innovation.
Rather than explanations offered by skeptics towards enlargement, stating potentially disruptive effect on the cohesion within the EU, what is at stake today is more about consolidating what the Union has already achieved so far. This should be done along very pragmatic lines of finding ways of providing, through common policies, added value in core European areas such as economic, social, migration, and security policy dimensions. The inclusion of the Western Balkans can provide added value in all these fields.
Author: Bojana Lalatović