The Balkans fuse

Three nations in what was once Europe’s powder keg set plans to blend their economies, replicating the “common home” of the EU.

Serbia's Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, right, and North Macedonia Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, second from right, look at police officers from their two countries work together at a joint border crossing.

Not once but twice in the 20th century, Europe’s southeast corner was the scene of tragic wars, triggered by ethnic nationalism. This month, however, three countries in the Balkans – Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia – decided to create a common home for the region. Tired of waiting to join the European Union, they laid plans to create their own peace-shaping union.

The three agreed to allow passport-free travel for their 18 million citizens by 2021, much like the EU’s border-free zone. They also want a faster flow of goods, ending the long lines of trucks stuck at customs points. And qualified workers will be able to take jobs in each other’s countries. They also invited other Balkan nations to join.

“We are all on a European path, but we have agreed to decide our own fate,” said Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

The EU itself remains an inspiration in the way it has built a “home” for so many countries after two world wars or decades of living under communist rule. “The Creator made Europe small and even divided her, so that our hearts could find joy not in size but in diversity,” wrote the Czech novelist Karel Čapek. Yet the EU’s sense of belonging has been troubled by recent tensions, such as Britain’s planned exit, lingering issues from a 2009 recession, and differences over the admission of new member countries.

Last week, for example, France vetoed the start of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia that would allow them to join the EU. The countries are qualified to join. And most of the EU’s 28 members want them to join. But France is unhappy about disputes within the bloc.

The plan for a measure of economic unity in the Balkans is an attempt to replicate the core of the EU’s model: a values-based community that could prevent a return to blood-and-soil nationalism. “This initiative is a political step to relaxing relations in the region,” said North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. “The Balkans is no longer a ‘gunpowder barrel’ as it has been since the 19th century. This is a 21st- century Balkans focused on peace, stability, economic development, integration, and the improvement of quality of life.”

The Balkans is not yet free of ethnic tensions. Serbia has yet to acknowledge Kosovo as a sovereign nation. And Bosnia struggles with divisions between Croats, Serbs, and Islamic Bosnians. Yet two of the region’s nations, Croatia and Slovenia, have already joined the EU. Now the rest, waiting for the EU to get its act together, are defining their own home for now. Like a thriving family, there can be joy in diversity.

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