Leaders of the European Union say they want to “step up” the EU’s role in the world. Some seek “strategic autonomy” from the United States. Yet at a summit Wednesday, the 27-nation bloc will try to patch a big hole in its own efforts to create a unified Continent. It will again consider whether to admit six states in the western Balkans, perhaps within the next decade.
That southeast corner of Europe remains a hotbed of ethnic and religious nationalism, or exactly why the EU was created after World War II. In a tour of the region last week, the president of the EU’s executive arm, Ursula von der Leyen, told local leaders the main reason for a delay in the promised membership – a promise made 18 years ago:
“It is clear that the region has to build the most important bridge of all – and that is the bridge of reconciliation. We count on you to cross this difficult, but so beautiful, so necessary bridge of reconciliation. We owe it to the victims of the past conflicts that have torn this beautiful region, and we owe it to the youth that have a European dream.”
Balkan nations have made some progress to integrate with the EU project. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined. Three others – Albania, Serbia, and North Macedonia – pledged in July to bolster economic integration among themselves by ending border controls in 2023. Kosovo, Bosnia- Herzegovina, and Montenegro still have problems, such as corruption, that hold them back.
The EU itself is divided over admitting new members. It has yet to recover from Britain’s exit or a financial crisis more than a decade ago. Yet it places long-term security in a Europe united around ideals of freedom and equality, something still missing in parts of the Balkans. It also eyes Russia’s attempts to influence the region toward its model of authoritarian rule.
In a report last year, the EU said that a “credible enlargement policy is a geostrategic investment in peace, stability, security and economic growth in the whole of Europe.” The Oct. 6 summit is an opportunity to make good on that investment. The EU’s power of attraction provides a strong incentive for the people of the Balkans to finally reconcile their differences.