‘’ We will do all we can to help you succeed, but membership must be earned. How far you proceed along the road towards European Integration, and how fast, will be up to you”

                                                                                                                                                                       Chris Patten

‘The future of the Balkan states lies within the EU’. This is a statement made years ago by the Commission itself, a promise which currently EU is trying to keep since the launch of the Stabilization and Association Process in the Balkan region, currently contained in a broad agenda of integration, association, neighborhood and accession. However, the countries to which EU promised to transform into “stable, self-sufficient democracies, with market economies and the rule of law, are in fact, still far away from EU accession. And the reason for that is not a secret. Western Balkans are in transition Politically, legally, economically, socially and morally.

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When we speak of EU integration, we must keep in mind that we are referring to a very broad and complicated process that touches not upon one, not two countries but an entire region. And therefore, it is not easy to generalize it as such. It is a multi-layered process where the past, the present and the future meet at the same point. So, on a first layer, they are dealing with serious issues on national level, trying to solve them in order to be able to move to the next phase. Secondly, they are facing resistance and skepticism from the Member States in regard to their reforms and intentions towards EU integration. And thirdly, Western Balkan countries are dealing with constant pressure to meet the expectations and fulfill the requirements that EU is placing on them. On top of that, the lack of structure and determination, clear goals and will to face the reality regarding the integration process gives them certain beliefs that are inaccurate, do not really work in their benefit, and confuse them even more.

For instance, it is often believed that EU is not playing a ‘fair game’ towards the Western Balkans and that the ‘country tailored process’ translated into SAA agreements is claimed to be slow, confusing, constantly changing, and does not correspond to the internal situation within the Balkans. It is true that the ways in which the EU engages in the region today have changed and hardened in terms of policies, conditionality and additional demands. But all this reveals two facts that we cannot ignore. First, the commitment and determination of the EU to make Balkan countries part of its large family and Second, our inability to deal with the pressure of its requirements and demands.

This inability to catch up to the fast changing enlargement conditionality and the lack of will to solve the issues on national level brings frustration and disappointment among many, and some of us even question current potential candidate states becoming part of the EU at all. However, the frustration and disappointment does not truly come from the EU’s itself, but rather from our national hurdles, political incompatibility and lack of internal reforms, corruption, weak economies, serious human rights breaches and so forth. The many requirements and conditions placed on us shouldn’t be seen as an imposed process by the EU but as a chance that it is presented to us to catch up with the rest of the European countries within a certain period of time.

A chance to become part of the EU family with dignity. We must not want to join the EU ‘second handed citizens’ for the simple reason that we might pay the price later on. And so, in order to successfully complete this journey we have embarked on for a while now, we need vision instead of prejudice, clear goals instead of excuses and determination to change ourselves instead of having big expectations from the others. If the Integration process is perceived as a failure among us, than maybe it’s time we lower our expectations, adjust our goals and start working harder towards them.

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Another inaccurate perception is that EU integration a strictly political process to be dealt with within the doors of the governmental structures. As a result, the rest of us such as the legal community, media and civil society, have turned into spectators of the show instead of participators. Unfortunately, most of the above groups are either not motivated or not interested in the integration process and have no desire to deal with the difficult demands EU is placing upon us. This in turn does not pushes the process forward and brings the lack of interest at an early stage of the integration. The truth is, however that EU integration touches upon each one of us and each one of the areas we are involved in, either directly or indirectly. Therefore, our contribution is absolutely necessary to the process.

We all need to fight issues that are threat and obstacles to our democratic stability and prosperity. Issues such as poverty reduction, fight against corruption, illegal immigration, trafficking, human rights and many more need to be tackled in all their layers. We need to speak up, inform, take initiatives, collaborate, do research, ask questions and demand answers about all these issues within our countries. This is not the job of EU, it’s ours.

Furthermore, we need to stop treating the integration process as a ‘product with an expiration date’ which ceases to exist the moment we become part of the EU. Our integration is a continuous, growing process and always will be because EU integration is not about achieving a certain goal. EU integration is the goal. We will comply, approximate and harmonize with EU procedures and laws not just now, not just in a few years but all the time, because the growth never stops. And in order to be achieved, this requires a considerable amount of time and effort, work and struggle, fight against certain phenomena, cooperation and trust on national, regional and EU level. Nobody said that EU enlargement strategy would be great or the road to EU membership would be easy. But I believe our countries can make it if they work towards the same goals, for the same purposes and based on same values. Right now, it is important that we ask ourselves the right questions and be honest about the answers but first and foremost need to realize that EU is not here to solve our problems and it shouldn’t.

EU is helping us to help ourselves and that should be sufficient.

 

14 January 2016 

S. Tola Khouw