Fifteen years after the EU-Western Balkans summit in Thessaloniki, during which the EU gate was left ajar for a European perspective of the Balkan countries, this part of the Old Continent is once again the centre of attention of Community institutions. Also the Commission of Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE) has decided to give its contribution to the process with a document titled “Western Balkans’ European Integration: Promise of peace or source of development?”, in view of the upcoming summit meeting in Sofia May 17. COMECE’s analysis is the result of in-depth dialogue with the bishops of local Catholic churches.
Rich historical and cultural identity. “The Catholic Church has favoured and supported the project of European integration since its very beginnings”, states the document that quotes the words of Pope Francis during the COMECE Re-Thinking Europe dialogue held past fall. “The EU is above all a peace project and a community of principles and values.” The Pope’s attention for the Western Balkans is evident also in the apostolic visits in the region: to Albania in 2014 and to Bosnia & Herzegovina in 2015. Owing to “their history and their rich cultural and religious heritage, the Western Balkans are an integral part of the European family” and “a point of encounter between the Orient and the Occident”, states the document in English available at: www.comece.eu. For this reason, COMECE states, “despite increasing engagement of various external actors” in the area, “there seems to be no credible alternative for the Western Balkans than the path of European integration.” Given the positive expectations of citizens in the Western Balkans regarding EU membership, it is important “not to create false expectations” and it’s necessary to avoid “any tendencies to set double-standards or to block EU accession merely due to unresolved bilateral problems.”
Integrating the whole region, not single Countries. The COMECE document recommends to embed the entire region in the European integration process “to avoid fragmentation”, since “a stronger EU integration of only some Western Balkan countries risk causing new divisions in the region”, given the fact that “state borders barely follow ethnic, national or family patterns.” The six Balkan countries referred to are: Serbia and Montenegro, that have already opened accession negotiations; Macedonia and Albania, awaiting EU Council confirmation to open negotiations; Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are potential candidates.
Fair relations between partners for a renewed project. The analysis suggests that “the European integration process of Western Balkan states be based on “fair, responsible and global partnership”, that fosters “the resilience of people, families, communities, in view of reconciliation and lasting peace.” For the authors of the document, “an increased engagement of the European Union with the region” will strengthen “the fight against corruption and organized crime, the independence of the judiciary, that will lead to more transparency of public finances.”
Regional contribution to the EU. Given that the EU itself needs to be ready to welcome new members, EU 28 Member Countries (due to become 27, considering the upcoming exit of the United Kingdom) are bound to benefit from integration of Balkan countries “with their history and their rich cultural and religious heritage, new markets, strengthened social and regional cohesion as well as prospects for lasting peace and stability on the European continent.”
Unemployment and emigration of youths. The COMECE document reiterates the realities described by local bishops on numerous occasions, namely, “the difficult demographic situation”, “high emigration” and “high youths unemployment” afflicting Western Balkan countries. The EU’s commitment to implement effective policies in this respect would be highly beneficial, with special focus “on the empowerment of citizens with fewer opportunities, such as women or Roma.” This process should involve “Churches and religious communities” in their capacities as providers of social services, education and health care.
Promoting reconciliation and lasting peace. Mindful of the tragic history of Countries of ex-Yugoslavia, COMECE underlined that “facing present and future challenges requires learning how to deal with the burden of past violence and to explore appropriate transitional justice.” “Without justice, reconciliation will not be possible; and without reconciliation, no lasting peace can exist”, the document states, adding that “the EU should assume a much more pro- active role by seeking creative approaches” that include “the need to protect and promote the rights of all ethnic and religious components, whether they are majorities or minorities.” Threats to peace include “political discourses that often tend to make an instrumental use of historical memory and reopen the still persisting wounds of the past.” Furthermore, the document highlights the need for “dialogue with all relevant regional stakeholders, which might be facilitated by the language and shared historical experiences.”
The role of religious communities and of the Churches. “Within the European integration process, the existing religious and cultural diversity needs to be preserved and promoted”, in the light of the fact that “for centuries, the Western Balkans have been an example of interreligious coexistence”, the document states. Its authors point out: “The capacity of inter-religious dialogue to build bridges positively contributes to the long- term objectives of development and peace”, as highlighted “in the recent joint declaration of Bishops of Austria and of Bosnia & Herzegovina.” Moreover, a dialogue between political and religious authorities must continue also in the light of future EU-Western Balkans Summits.