As I am writing this, Brussels – and in particular its EU quartier – is slowly getting back to »business as usual«. The European Council meeting, where 28 heads of state debate about strategic choices and fundamental issues of the European Union, ended today and EU leaders went back to their countries. They will inform their citizens about what they agreed on in Brussels and one of the decisions they adopted concerns the Western Balkans. Namely, ‘the EU leaders look forward to the EU-Western Balkans Summit to be held in Sofia on 17 May 2018, which is expected to focus on reaffirming the European perspective of the region, launching concrete and visible initiatives to improve the physical and human connectivity within the region and with the EU, and addressing how to better engage together on shared challenges such as security and migration‘; they also ‘confirm that enlargement will be addressed by the Council in June‘.
Uninteresting, technical reading? Might be. But I assure you this is very good news. Translated into colloquial terms, it means the doors of the EU are open for the six Western Balkans countries. If Jean Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, started off his mandate announcing that no single country will join the Union under his term, he is finishing this same term travelling around the region, shaking hands with the Western Balkans’ leaders and promising them that they will be part of the same family. If, or when, they achieve progress in certain areas, rule of law (including improvement in judiciary, fighting corruption and organized crime, strengthening democracy and institutions, improving situation in media and freedom of speech and better protecting citizens’ rights) being the most important one.
In the past few days I had numerous discussions on the EU enlargement and the Western Balkans’ future within the EU with other members of the European Parliament, with different ministers from the region who were visiting the European Parliament, with experts, media and NGO representatives. State officials come to us to talk about the progress they achieved, praising the work of their governments and convincing us why should their countries take a step further on the EU path. Journalists and NGO representatives come with a different story: desperate and helpless, they complain about poor conditions they work in, about political pressure and insufficient safety of journalists, resulting in self-censorship and low quality, unprofessional journalism.
Of course, it matters where exactly does the truth lie. But what matters even more is that the accession of these countries to the European Union will never be truly successful unless both state representatives as well as ordinary citizens and civil society members have close understanding of what the situation in their countries look like. For as the European Union is not an exclusive club for country leaders, but a historical integration project designed to connect people and serve for the benefit of its citizens.
How to use this window of opportunity for the Western Balkans and enrich the EU project with the six Western Balkans countries joining as soon as possible? My bet is on strategic communication. I believe that we have to communicate better and more directly with citizens from the region, through different networks and platforms, and at the same time we need to communicate with our domestic, EU audience. Our communication must exceed technical terminology about negotiation chapters and should rather focus on positive, yet realistic messages on what the joining of these countries means for both sides: internal market, more jobs, better education opportunities, but also richer cultural heritage and stronger partnership in facing global challenges. Only with honest communication and genuine approach can we gain confidence of citizens from both current as well as future members. Without their confidence and trust, our common EU future is rather vague.
Tanja is a Slovenian politician and Member of the European Parliament from Slovenia. She is a member of the Social Democrats, part of the Party of European Socialists. She is currently a head of the Slovenian delegation within the political group of Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, and a vice-president of the Social Democrats.