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Opinion

The Diplomat’s Guide To The Western Balkans

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As a journalist, part of my job is to wade through the hot air that comes out of the mouths of politicians and diplomats to try and find something tangible. But there comes the point when there is only so much hot air one can take.

Yesterday, President of the European Council Charles Michel posted a tweet that pushed me over the metaphorical edge.

“The Western Balkans are a strategic priority for the EU. We are fully committed to the European perspective of the region. We welcome your government’s focus on implementing reforms and tackling issues like the rule of law, justice reforms, and fighting corruption.”

After covering Albania and the region for nearly five years, I have lost count of the number of times I have heard these words. They have been rearranged, interspersed with different country names (Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, North Macedonia), and parroted by different individuals from embassies, the Commission, the Council, the Parliament, and political leaders from member states, but the words are always the same.

‘Strategic importance’

Michel, in October 2021, “ The first important point is that this region is of strategic importance to the EU. In a strong statement, together we all reaffirmed the European perspective of the region and the desire to work towards progress on enlargement.”

Scholz earlier this week said, “the Western Balkans are of strategic importance” and deserve to start membership talks.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also has a fine repertoire of meaningless statements.

“…enduring cooperation between Albania and the European Union, and of our common future. We have seen the future. We have seen the children, the boys and girls. And let me be very clear, Albania’s future is in the European Union. We are friends and partners.”

“Albania has clearly delivered all that we have been asking for. And I know you have come a long way. That was a difficult process. You put an enormous effort in it. You were successful. You are successful. So I really commend you on that. And now it is us who have to deliver.”

“Here too, we are often looking forward in the future, but we should not forget what has been done in the past, the long way you have come.”

“Indeed, the future of North Macedonia is in the European Union. We want you by our side. And the European Commission and me, myself, we are firmly standing by this commitment. You can rely on us. You have made outstanding progress and taken courageous decisions. And I really want to commend you for that, I want to praise you for that. And I want to be very clear, now it is for the European Union to deliver.”

“I really commend you also on the progress that North Macedonia has done on EU-related reforms, in particular on the rule of law, the fight against corruption and organised crime. It is so important to keep this momentum and continue with that. “

“And it is a symbol for the future that we are building together. And we want a future where Kosovo and all the Western Balkans are part of the European Union. That is what we are working for. It is a long way to go. We have come a long way. We have made a lot of progress. We never lose sight of the goal: That is all Western Balkans, Kosovo, part of the European Union. That is what we want.”

“Building bridges between people, countries and cultures, that is so crucial for our common future. Because Bosnia and Herzegovina, and all the Western Balkans, belong in the European Union. It is in our common interest, but I also believe, it is our destiny.”

Tired old trope

But I don’t want to waste any more time with these meaningless comments because all of us have heard them a million times before. In fact, I personally am so used to them that I joke with my colleagues about “normalising relations”, “strongly condemning”, “moving forward constructively”, “imploring”, and “noting with concern.”

And it is not just me, there is an entire Twitter page dedicated to EU copy-paste, although I think there is definitely scope for a Western Balkan one.

What I really want to know is how these highly educated, extremely well-paid, and successful people can continue issuing statements like this with a straight face. There is absolutely no way they are not aware that they have been saying the same thing for years. 

I do not understand how they can sign off on tweets, publish statements, and read out pre-prepared monologues without cringing. It is embarrassing to keep hearing the same phrases over and over again.

In fact, I often imagine those responsible for crafting such communications have a document called ‘The Diplomat’s Guide to the Western Balkans’. It contains a list of pre-approved statements, positions, and sentences that can be copied and pasted and cobbled together, switching out the country name/politician name as and when needed.

Even getting a usable comment out of the Commission is like getting blood out of a stone these days. You have to wade through paragraphs of nothing to try and find something unique that even slightly answers your question.

I may not be from the Balkans, but this is my home, and this is where I have chosen to put down roots. Therefore, I feel I have some right to say that on behalf of people living here, in Albania especially, we are tired of hearing the same old thing.

An insult to intelligence

We are bored of seeing diplomats in suits fly in and out, pose for photos with our politicians, and parrot the same old, tired diatribe again and again. From my perspective, not only is it dishonest, but it is insulting to the intelligence of the people that live here. The people of the Western Balkans are not stupid, and furthermore, they resent being treated as such.

Now more than ever, our societies are increasingly aware that enlargement is all but dead in the water. What the EU is doing is keeping the region dangling in an attempt to prevent ever-encroaching influence from Russia, Turkey, and China.

They do this by dangling carrots such as funding and meaningless platitudes and promises while simultaneously reinforcing the EU door from their side. They primp and preen authoritarian and even criminal leaders, glossing over human rights violations, organised crime, and constant rule-breaking, just to keep that carrot looking fresh. This is a balancing act that has run its course.

I want a future for Albania and the region that is firmly in the EU. I want my children to grow up in the country they belong to as a part of a union that offers them equality, freedom, and standardised quality of life.

What I don’t want is to have to listen to any more patronising drivel from diplomats and politicians who honestly could not care less about the future of my children or anyone else in the Western Balkans’ for that matter.

The response of the EU to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown they possess the teeth needed to stand firm and strong. I just wish this could be applied to this region. If even a tenth of that tenacity could be harnessed into real reforms, accountability, and calling out bad behaviour from regional politicians, then perhaps the dream of EU membership will not die completely.

Sadly, I fear it is too late. The EU has shown that it considers the Western Balkans as just a backwater of the continent. So much so, they cannot even be creative in their statements anymore. This is now well understood by most of society and even our leaders.

To any diplomats or politicians reading this, how about a little less talk and a little more action? Because when you are disingenuous, sometimes it is better to say nothing at all.

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