Although fraught with negative connotations, the geographical region defined as the ‘Balkans’ is one of unique and lively history. Unequivocally, a history of ethnic divisiveness and political turmoil, yet, in a space abound in cultural richness, shared heritages, entangled and connected national histories. History bears particular significance for Balkan peoples, who, nevertheless, tend to abuse the word ‘historic’. The popularity of the term could be attributed to its melodic sound and profound meaning – whatever is important or likely to be important in history, according to Cambridge Dictionary. The heroic echo of the favourite word in the Balkan world resounds through every aspect of the countries’ political processes, from elections and political agreements to the longed-for EU membership. The latter offers a new momentum to use the word. But this time, ‘historic’ is not an understatement of the opportunity that lies ahead. The European Union’s new enlargement strategy for the Western Balkans is expected to revive the long-stalled membership prospects. However, it’s not a time to get carried away with excitement.
The wishes for an enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans should not be mistaken for a ’blank cheque’, as Commissioner Hahn and other EU officials have noted. The EU integration path of the Western Balkans is still under construction, built on fundamental reforms, good neighbourly relations and substantial transformation on political, economic and social levels. The new enlargement strategy brings, once again, hope to the whole region. What is left for the leaders and the citizens of the Western Balkans is to seize this unique opportunity by doubling their efforts towards strengthening the democratic institutions and working harder to align with the EU acquis. Only then will they succeed in breaking those common stereotypes predicated on the assumption that they are laggard and ineffective. This historic opportunity requires commitment, hard work, but above all, strong will.
In this revived enlargement discourse, the questions of whether the EU is ready to accept the Western Balkans, or whether the Western Balkans are ready to prove they deserve a place in the EU are raised once again. The questions remain to be answered, as the ray of hope shining for the Western Balkans in light of this new circumstance becomes the key driver of transformation.