EU enlargement: the real answer to ethnic tensions in the Balkans


Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha arrives at the EU Headquarters for a European People's Party (EPP) enlarged summit on Dec. 13, 2012 in Brussels.


John Thys

TIRANA, Albania - Five countries in the Balkans, including Albania and neighboring nations, are at various steps along the path to full membership in the European Union.

Recent headlines – and our region’s history – serve as reminders why it is so important that all five nations join the EU, not only for our own economic futures, but also for the peace and stability of our region, our continent and the entire world.

From the assassination in Sarajevo that sparked World War I to the ethnic cleansing of the 1990’s that required international intervention, the history of the Balkans has been marred by strife that embroiled other countries in our region’s conflicts. These problems continue to simmer below the surface and always are in danger of boiling over.

As with many nationalities in the Balkans, ethnic Albanians live not just within one country but are indigenous to five: Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. And there are significant numbers of Albanian immigrants scattered across Europe. While minorities from many backgrounds have suffered from bias and brutality in our region for as long as can be remembered, this fact makes the stories I hear about contemporary harassment of ethnic Albanians no less heartbreaking.

Among other incidents, there have been human rights abuses in the Presheva Valley, the Albanian population center in South Serbia. Expressing concern for our kinsmen, some of my countrymen are warning of “Albania-phobia” among our neighbors and elsewhere in Europe.

Let me be clear: Albanians are great believers in the Euro-Atlantic values of rights and responsibilities for all. We want nothing more than to live at peace – and in mutual respect -- with all our neighbors, from every ethnic and religious background.

Yes, we want to be sure that ethnic Albanians’ rights be recognized wherever they live. We will never accept that Albanians may be considered second-class citizens in other countries, just as we must never treat anyone as a second-class citizen within our own country. That was a main driver behind our enactment of a landmark anti-discrimination law protecting LBGT rights in 2010.

It’s true that we still struggle with occasional bouts of intolerance aimed Greeks, Serbs and other nationalities by narrow-minded people. Thankfully in recent years, this is increasingly rare. We have worked hard to build a multi-ethnic, multi-religious coexistence within Albania, with Albanians, Greeks, Macedonians, Romas, Muslims, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox all living peacefully together. We strive to make and keep Albania a society with equal rights, equal opportunities, and equal justice for all.

Moreover, we are committed to keeping the peace and maintaining stability within our region. We have no interest in redrawing any national boundaries within the Balkans, except in one respect: When it comes to the free movement of people and goods, we say abolish all borders!

How then can we ensure that ethnic Albanians are first-class citizens wherever they live and that they can realize their aspirations to live together in a single political and economic entity?

The inescapable answer is for Albania – and all countries of the region with significant numbers of Albanians, including Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia – to join the European Union.

When all our these nations enter the EU, we will be joining together with 27 nations that include such recent members as Slovenia and Cyprus, which have been part of the EU since 2004; Bulgaria and Romania, which joined in 2007; and Croatia, which will become a full member-state later this year.

For Albania, membership in the EU will be a logical extension of our membership in the United Nations, NATO, and the Council of Europe, as well as our transition from communist rule to a multiparty democracy with free markets and the rule of law.

For all the nations of the Balkans, ascension into the EU will integrate our economies into the largest single market in the world, while making our peoples part of a continental community in which every ethnic and religious group can find a home, and national boundaries will seem less important and unworthy of ceaseless skirmishes.

This can be the only modern meaning of the age-old aspirations summed up in the emotionally charged phrase, “Greater Albania,” and the similar nationalist impulses that have long been held by other peoples of the Balkans. United in a common pan-European polity, Albanians and the other peoples of the Balkans will at long last all be able to focus on our common future, instead of historical rivalries and grievances.

Now more than ever, for Albania and our neighbors, our journey towards the EU is our pathway to peace, stability and security.

Sali Berisha is the Prime Minister of Albania.