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Western Balkans and Europe: showing the love, finally?

Walking in the streets of Pristina nowadays, you may be surprised to find a magazine discussing sexuality, Kosovo 2.0, in a region where these issues are usually never discussed. Inside, articles on seduction techniques, on homosexuality and on discrimination against young women; a stark contrast to the reality in the country, where there remains a wall of silence on such topics. The publication of this issue has caused great public discussion and even aggression on the street close to a stand where the magazine was being sold. The culprits were immediately condemned by the courts and by a large part of the population.

This event exemplifies the pride the European Union (EU) should feel for social dynamics that fall in line with its values. Yet, political and economic advances are slow. The new Juncker Commission stated it would not support the integration of new countries in the EU over the next four years. European public opinion explains that stance partly: support for the integration of new members has fallen to 20-25%. Brussels insists on the need to stabilize a ‘28 nations EU’ -- Croatia having recently joined in 2013 -- and the need to accelerate the pace of reforms in the area.

Conditioning the integration of the Western Balkans on progress re; corruption, unemployment and public services makes sense. Rumours abound linking political manipulations to a shootout in the northern Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia town of Kumanovo, leaving twenty-two dead, including eight police officers, on May 9th. In Kosovo, a corruption case opened in 2014 against the rule of law mission EULEX, was used as one of the pretexts for an entrenched institutional stalemate while the rule of law makes little progress. The gains of twenty years of US/EU stabilization efforts are at stake.

Those gains are now up for grabs. Vladimir Putin is making headway in the Western Balkans as well. The Serbian President presented Putin with the highest honour of the country in October 2014, a ceremony that owes much to the Russian control of Serbian oil and gas companies. Moscow also encourages the secession of the Serb Republic of Bosnia (Republika Srpska), which was ultimately discouraged by Belgrade in 2014 for the sake of its European integration perspectives. Given that growing regional competition, is Europe as decisive as it is demanding? Are we influencing events through assistance injected through our EU missions and delegations?

The European integration dynamic still works and some Balkan countries, such as Albania, moved towards pre-accession negotiations. The EU brokered an essential agreement between Kosovo and Serbia in 2013. Overall the knack for Europe still outweighs external pressures and ethnic divisions. Nevertheless, Brussels remains cornered by the dilemma of a potential Balkan shift towards Russia and Turkey on one side, and the prerequisite of reforms needed before joining the EU on the other, to prevent a major migration and economic shock. Eventually, bar German activism in the area, Europe offers little love in that uneasy transition period. Few EU politicians travel there to insist that Balkan societies share our values and are part of our family.

That is a shame. Civil society has finally woken up after decades of communism, ethnic conflicts and peacekeeping interventions. They feel European but still need our attention to progress further as their elites are only viewing policies in a self-serving light. In Bosnia, citizens' groups’-dubbed "plenum"- have organised anti-government protests since February 2014. A year earlier, the Bulgarian government had fallen due to protests denouncing the rise in electricity bills and rampant corruption. Again, on May 17th, thousands gathered in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to demand the resignation of long serving Prime Minister Gruevski.

What is Brussels doing in the meantime to show support for democratic and anti-corruption movements? We need to continue to show an interest in the progress made by reformist Balkan politicians or otherwise support popular movements. Only then will the EU foster political alternatives in line with its values and interests, creating the space for further integration in Europe. Failing states on the European continent should not be an option.