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Verhofstadt: Alternative to European engagement in the Western Balkans could return to violent conflict

Guy Verhofstadt at the GMF's Brussels Forum; Photo: Flickr/German Marshall Fund

In his latest op-ed published on Project Syndicate, Guy Verhofstadt, a President of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group (ALDE) in the European Parliament stressed the need to bolster the path of Western Balkan countries on their road to European Union membership. Also, Verhofstadt showed his concerns about the current process, stating that progress is fragile and could easily be reversed without a renewed push made by the EU.

The last crisis started on January 16, when talks between the representatives of Serbia and Kosovo were called off due to the murder of the Kosovo Serb leader Oliver Ivanović who was shot dead in Kosovska Mitrovica. According to Verhofstadt’s words, Ivanović’s assassination threatens to thwart the current dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia but might go hand in hand with the rising nationalism in the region.

“Since the end of the Kosovo War in 1999, the Western Balkans have made much progress in facing down the nationalist and reactionary forces that gave rise to that brutal ethnic conflict. But Ivanović’s assassination, most likely at the hands of criminal gangs that have been allowed to prosper in Northern Kosovo, now threatens to throw fuel on a still-smouldering fire. The region’s nationalist ghosts are being roused from their slumber”, remarked Guy Verhofstadt.

Among the other challenges on Western Balkans European path, a former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt listed corruption, organized crime and rule of law as top priorities to be dealt with. Furthermore, he commented the challenges of each Western Balkan country.

Commenting the current talks between Macedonia and Greece about the name dispute, Verhofstadt thinks that there is a reason for hope because these two countries are working together to solve this issue. Beside the name dispute, “Macedonia has long been split over domestic issues concerning corruption, abuse of power, and ethnic minorities”, stated Verhofstadt.

On the other hand, Montenegro and Serbia are recognized as frontrunners in the negotiation process. Moreover, Montenegro succeeded in joining NATO, despite the Russian influence including an alleged plot to overthrow the current government.

Other Western Balkan countries remain blocked altogether, either by vetoes from within the EU or by domestic issues, wrote Verhofstadt.

“Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, is still wrestling with the constraints of the Dayton peace accords. And Milorad Dodik, the Kremlin-backed leader of its constituent Serb Republic, Republika Srpska, has been toying with the idea of a referendum on independence”, claims Verhofstadt.

Speaking about the Russian influence in Western Balkans region, a former Belgian Prime Minister thinks that Russia has an interest in discouraging those states from pursuing NATO and EU membership which, he claims, is one reason more for the EU to step up its engagement in the region.

When it comes to the Strategy that will be presented at the European Parliament, Verhofstadt thinks that “if a strategy is to succeed, it will have to be accompanied by European-led reforms in the Western Balkans that align those countries more closely with EU membership requirements”.

More importantly, the EU must make clear that accession will be based on merit, but also that target dates are aspirational and not binding. Verhofstadt emphasized that in order not to repeat mistakes with the accession of Romania and Bulgaria when arbitrary target dates accorded too much weight, so weakened the incentives for reforms.

Finally, “the EU’s Enlargement Strategy will require support from individual EU member states, which should be reminded that failure to keep the Western Balkans within the European fold could result in a return to the bloodshed of the 1990s, or worse. It will also demand support from European partners and allies – particularly the US – which should be reminded of the geopolitical importance of avoiding such an outcome”, stated Verhofstadt.

In a nutshell, Guy Verhofstadt specified that “the alternative to European engagement in the Western Balkans is rising nationalism and a possible return to violent conflict. The EU must do everything in its power to forestall that scenario”.

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