In a few months, the leaders of the European Union are to return to the question of opening negotiations on EU membership with Albania and North Macedonia. Make no mistake: as we discuss the matter, our credibility is on the line. We already missed an opportunity in October this year. Further delay could lead to a downward spiral reversing the reform and integration progress achieved in the Western Balkans. Such a turn of events would be against our common interest of a prosperous, secure and united Europe.

As we look towards this next stage of deliberations, we cannot and must not lose the sagacity of the EU leaders of previous decades. Those leaders knew exactly what they were doing in promoting the European project. In 2003, Thessaloniki decisions opened up the European Union to the aspiring democracies of six Western Balkan countries. Since then, painful reforms have been implemented, the rule of law solidified, economies, societies and borders opened up. North Macedonia went on to change its name and conclude the Prespa Agreement with Greece to secure its future at the negotiating table with the EU. Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia have made strides in aligning their foreign policies with those of the European Union. Nationalism and populism were kept at bay. Importantly, the EU Commission concluded that Albania and North Macedonia had fulfilled the conditions for the start of the talks.

‘Hold on’, one could argue, ‘the European Union project is itself beset by a multitude of internal challenges.’ Fair enough. Yes, the EU accession process needs change and that will take time. Yes, a post-Brexit Europe needs to redefine its balance. This being said, the Eurosceptic views rejecting the path of Western Balkan nations towards EU membership is not the way forward. The window of opportunity will not be there for long. As we move the relevant decisions further down the path, we risk losing the significant progress in the Western Balkans that has transformed public administration, policy, judiciary and societies. Ignoring the warning signs, such as Prime Minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev calling for snap elections after the failure by the EU to start accession talks, may carry a  heavy cost.

Serbia is increasingly looking towards China and Russia. Just last month, Serbia signed a deal with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. Moscow has courted North Macedonia and Albania to do likewise. China is becoming the single largest investor in some of the countries in Southern Europe. Dormant nationalism may rupture in the Western Balkans. Let us bear in mind that where we fail to act and demonstrate leadership, others will step in to fill the void, and the consequences may turn out to be far from those that we desire.

As we move towards the next stage of deliberations on opening the negotiations for Albania and North Macedonia, the overarching guiding principle should be Europa non delenda est – Europe cannot be destroyed.  Let us move forward to the EU-Western Balkans Summit of May 2020 with a clear vision of  a united Europe. Let us have all six western Balkans countries at the negotiating table on their path towards the European Union. Opening up the accession negotiations  would enable the  EU to reinforce and reaffirm  its role as a force of positive transformation. The beginning of EU accession process is not a privilege. It is a mutual responsibility and benefit for both, the aspiring countries eager to ensure the sustainability of their reforms, and the credibility of the EU.

In June 2019, the European leaders agreed on a new Strategic Agenda for 2019-2024, reaffirming the EU’s presence on the global stage. For that, too, we need a united, strong, and inclusive EU, leading by example and true to the commitments it makes.

The EU has to stand by its allies and support its friends. We have neighbours who share our common European values and continue to demonstrate progress in implementing the agreed reforms. Honouring our commitments to them is essential. If we cannot honour our commitments close to home, our credibility  as a global actor will be also affected.

We have the choice. Eyes wide shut, to quote a well know film title, is not the option. Instead, let us make the doors wide open to those who aspire to be and act and believe with us.