European Aspirations in the Balkans

By Ishani Desai

“Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.”

- Robert Schuman, 9 May 1950

In his historic declaration in May 1950, Robert Schuman, the architect of Europe, voiced his determination to merge the economic interests of his region and raise living standards, and to eventually create a more unified Europe. The result—the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), which included six Western European countries—was the first supranational European institution and would ultimately pave the way for today’s European Union (EU).

Since 1950, the EU has grown to include 28 member states with six others recognized as candidates for membership, including Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, for the time being, are potential candidates because they have not yet submitted membership applications. In order for any of these Western Balkan nations to join the EU, they must leave the divisive “balkanized” politics of the past behind and strive for regional cooperation.

Arriving in Albania on the eve of Tirana Talks, a meeting of the Vienna Economic Forum, I was welcomed to a decorated Tirana full of security guards, blocked streets and traffic jams. This was, in part, due to the first ever visit by a Serbian Prime Minister to Albania. The scene must have resembled that of Belgrade last November, when Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama’s visit to Serbia marked the first for an Albanian head of government since 1947.

In total, Prime Ministers from all six Western Balkan nations were in attendance in Tirana to discuss regional collaboration and prepare for the upcoming Vienna Forum in August. Their shared aim was simple: faster EU accession supported by improved regional integration. While disputes surfaced during the talks, this motivation ruled the day. An emphasis was put on increasing infrastructure and investment; however, securing funding for proposed projects remains a large challenge. To fulfill EU requirements, the region plans to invest in new highways to link ports and capitals and enhance mobility, to establish the first government-led regional youth center to foster social integration, and to work on linking energy markets. With the talks completed, the actions of the six nations over the next few months regarding these and other initiatives will be telling.

The priority of integration is clear within the Albanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is broadly supported by public opinion. The EU-funded Balkan Barometer 2015 Public Opinion Survey indicates that more than 84% of Albanians think that EU membership would be a good thing. Meanwhile, the surest path to EU accession is through regional integration. Although there are challenges to regional collaboration that are embedded in deep-rooted history and complex politics, the potential benefits are driving this priority today. One key idea is that regional cooperation will lead to regional security, which in turn will increase investments and help Albania (and the Balkan region) grow.

Working for the Center for International Development, my role for the summer is to help the Albanian Government explore ways to enhance regional integration and prepare for the next meeting of the Vienna Economic Forum. The Tirana Talks have set a positive atmosphere at the highest levels of government. The goal now is to design sound public policy, structure forward-thinking investment plans, and operationalize this spirit of regional collaboration into sustainable joint projects and initiatives. Trade is already encouraged in the region through the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), but Albania must lead the push for still greater economic cooperation and improved social integration. Such is the only way to achieve the de facto solidarity that Schuman described more than a half century ago.

See also: Albania