Integration still the key to West Balkan stability

The Western Balkans has historically been a staging post between east and west, and today is no different. We see daily evidence of the tensions caused when east meets west in the immigration crisis and increasing religious extremism. 

The immigration crisis, coupled with combating violent religious extremism, and nationalist rhetoric, have become the three main challenges facing our region’s political landscape, and, potentially, standing between us and greater European integration.

None of these challenges is unique to our region – they are common to Europe as a whole – but our countries have become the key battleground.

Next week they will take centre stage when we welcome government ministers, parliamentarians, journalists and foreign policy experts to Kosovo for the annual Germia Hill conference on European security policy.

The Western Balkan route has become the main thoroughfare for refugees fleeing civil war in Syria and Iraq.

As governments we must combat these problems by improving border security and promoting neighbourly relations.

Kosovo has managed to stem the number of asylum-seekers leaving the country by 90 percent this year, which the EU’s Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos has described as a “spectacular outcome”.

Meanwhile, 300 Kosovars have been returned and given stiff jail sentences for joining Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and our government has been recognised for its stance in the fight against violent extremism and contribution to the global anti-ISIS coalition.

We are also dealing with very painful issues from our past, reaching an agreement with the Netherlands to establish a Special Court in The Hague that will investigate and indict those suspected of war crimes during the Kosovo-Serbia war.

We have worked hard to normalize relations with Serbia; signed a border demarcation agreement with Montenegro, and are the only Balkan republic that has peacefully demarcated 75% of the border with 3 out of 4 neighbours.

Last autumn in Paris, not a single former Yugoslav republic voted against Kosovo’s bid to join UNESCO. But the active opposition of Serbia and Russia meant that despite a large majority of countries, including Britain supporting our bid to have access to UNESCO programs in education, science and heritage, we fell three votes short of 2/3 majority needed for us to become members.

We were particularly dismayed that the Serbian President could say that Kosovars “have no heritage accept motels and gas stations”, while their prime minister and foreign ministers compared Kosovo to Islamic State.

The most dangerous path that western Europe and our NATO allies could take is that of splendid isolation - closing its borders and its eyes and leaving the Balkans to fend for itself.

Putting European integration beyond our reach could encourage the return of nationalism.

Instead, we must work together.

Last week the European Parliament voted by an overwhelming majority to approve the EU’s Stability and Association Agreement with Kosovo, our first crucial step towards eventual EU membership.

Kosovo is not alone in seeking to integrate with the European Union and wider international community.

Our neighbour Montenegro was invited to become a member of NATO last December, an ambition that we share. Meanwhile, Serbia is beginning accession talks with the European Commission.

Yet present political realities mean that EU integration is less popular than a decade ago.

For example, Kosovo is on the brink of its citizens being given visa free travel access to the EU, having faced a set of entry criteria that were far stricter and more exacting than our neighbours faced in 2008, largely because of a changing political climate on free movement and border control. That is the hard political reality.

Visa free travel would be the most tangible sign of our political and economic ties to Europe. The danger is that by seeing the process repeatedly delayed Kosovars feel they are being punished for the sins of others.

The way I would define it is as having opponents without and within. We need to combat pockets of religious extremism in our own countries, and avoid a return to the ugly nationalist rhetoric that caused a decade of war in our neighbourhood.

To complete this process of normalisation in the Western Balkans we need continuous engagement with our European and NATO friends. The promise of joining organisations such as the EU and NATO remains a powerful carrot. Integration and co-operation remains the only way to resist the undercurrents of nationalism, organized crime and religious extremism threatening to tear the fabric of our societies.

Hashim Thaci is Kosovo’s Deputy Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister