The Western Balkans Will Make or Break the EU

The European Union faces one of its most important decisions since the Maastricht Treaty. At Maastricht, Netherlands, the newly born European Union decided to embark on a long voyage of expansion toward Eastern Europe in order to became more powerful economically, more important politically, and to respond to the new name: a union of the people of Europe. Now the European Union has reached a stalemate.

The Far East Becomes Too Far

In Eastern Europe an expansion is no longer wanted or desired. At the border of the European Union is first of all Russia. Then there is the authoritarian regime in Belarus, which is dedicated to building closer ties with Moscow rather than pursuing a European destiny. A special case is Ukraine. The country has proven to be unstable politically, split between two almost equal forces.

In the last four years following the so-called Orange Revolution, two main political parties have emerged. One is oriented toward Russia and the preservation of Ukraine's status as a member of the C.S.I. (Community of Independent States born from the ashes of the former Soviet Union); the other is a pro-Western party that has never succeeded in forming a governmental majority, having instead been forced to cooperate with smaller parties in unstable alliances.

Ukraine cannot achieve a NATO or European Union destiny until it resolves its internal issues. Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and the Baltic States all have populations that supported the European Union and NATO approach.

Ukraine will be the first country invited to seek membership in NATO or with European Union perspectives without having the support of its population. A forced push toward the West could ignite another Georgia-type conflict that no one wants.

To pursue a European Union and NATO expansion toward Ukraine and Georgia is to invite a new cold war with Russia, pushing the continent into a fractured relationship with Moscow and creating instability within the union's borders—a recipe for catastrophe.

The only country in the region that could be interested in a European destiny is Moldova, which was left to stand alone before Ukraine pressure and before the unstable Transnistria menace. No support was ever offered to the Moldavia region, the only area left in Eastern Europe with a majority of its population supporting closer ties with the European Union.

EU: Where to Now?

With its eastern borders shut down, for the time being, the European Union must move its attention to the Western Balkans (the countries of former Yugoslavia plus Albania). This region is crucial to European Union stabilization. It is inside the borders of the union and includes the shores of the Adriatic Sea.

This is the region that Winston Churchill used to describe, in the Second World War, as the soft spot of Europe, the belly of Europe, the place that is the most vulnerable. Churchill's geopolitical analyses are still relevant.

The European Union could not be valid with a huge blank spot in the middle; all the important connections of Europe (railways, roads) pass through this area. Also, we must not forget that this area was the scene of the most devastating conflict since the Second World War. The Balkans wars of the 1990's are still a harmful memory and the recent capture of Radovan Karadzic proves the region is still far from being at peace with itself.

Only a European destiny, with an economic community, one without borders, can put in the past the historical conflict of the region. Looking to the future will hopefully overcome the past.

Macedonia: The Heart of the Balkans

One of the most sensitive issues in the region is Macedonia. In April 2008, Greece, unhappy that Macedonia has the same name as one of its provinces, blocked the NATO bid of Macedonia. The European Union must intervene in this matter to offer Macedonia union and NATO perspectives.

Macedonia is a fragile country with an important Albanian community that finds the Kosovo example very appealing. Without a European and NATO perspective clearly drawn, Macedonia could become a problem in the Balkans and this must not be allowed to happen.

The borders of Macedonia must be guaranteed, the country supported in economical development and in building a civil society and achieving the standards required for union membership. A stable Macedonia will guarantee that the Kosovo experiment will not harm the region further, secure the regional borders, and erase any conflict issue from the area.

Serbia: Sacrifice Rewarded

Serbia suffered extremely in the last decade: the severe dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic, almost 19 years of international sanctions, poverty, the 1999 war, and now the loss of Kosovo. In the last two years, Serbia has proved that a European perspective could rally the country: Boris Tadic, a pro-West leader was elected, a pro-European Union government was established, and Radovan Karadzic was captured, which shows that Serbia is ready to make all the sacrifices.

Not sending the army into Kosovo, not protecting its legal and internationally recognized borders, was a sacrifice that not many countries are ready to make. For all these reasons Serbia must be offered union membership. Only this can keep the country on the road to reform and offer the opportunity of a peaceful resolution to the Kosovo crisis.

Bosnia: The Nightmare Is Not Over

Unfortunately, Bosnia, which saw during the 1990 war in former Yugoslavia some of the most cruel and severe fighting, is in need of the union's attention.

The arrest of Radovan Karadzic proved that in Bosnia the wounds of the war have not healed. Some radical Bosnians used the moment to call for the dissolution of the Republic of Srbska, an entity that unites the Serb community in Bosnia. Such an appeal would have brought Bosnia back to the war years.

Also, on the Serb side, some radicals advocated secession in Kosovo style. Fortunately, both calls to arms where not followed, but the future of a Bosnia outside the European Union's borders is a dark one. A country stricken by poverty, that is segregated, that did not overcome the memories of the recent past is a place where hate and ultra-nationalism has not had the last word. A European Union opportunity is the only thing that could keep the country united and offer a new perspective, far from war, to the people of long-suffering Bosnia.


The former Yugoslavian Republic of Montenegro is the country closest to the union's standards, and which will almost certainly have a European Union destiny in the near future. We have also a success story in Croatia, which must have, as soon as possible, a concrete plan to join the union to bolster the country's reform program.

Albania, however, is another provocation. In April, in Bucharest, the country received the Membership Action Plan, the first step in joining NATO, and must be within the next 15 years a member of the European Union.

Of course, as with almost all the countries in the region, political and economic standards must be meet. But a future with the European Union is the only way to get Albania (as well as the other countries in the region) to embrace such tough policies as fighting corruption, decriminalizing the economy, reforming politics, ensuring minority rights, stabilizing the frontier, and establishing cross border cooperation. A stable Albania, as a member in the union, together with Serbia, is the only way to resolve the Kosovo issue and promote the reintegration of the rebel province into Serbia's borders, with a special status under European Union supervision.

Toward a Stronger EU?

The Western Balkans is the natural and geopolitical direction for the new expansion of the European Union. Of course, this will take time, between 10 and 15 years, but all economical and political efforts must be directed toward this region. As long as the Western Balkans remain a place of insecurity, border redesign, and economical crime, the European Union will not have an inner equilibrium and will invite the foreign influence of the other great power in the region: Russia.

The European Union will be risking its survival if it does not start the process of integration with the Western Balkans. Pursuing the wrong direction in the east will weaken the union; concentrating efforts in the right direction on the Western Balkans will strength the Union. What will be the choice?