Increasingly in Europe at the moment, we are witnessing regions and countries attempting to break away from nations and larger groupings in an effort to determine or reclaim perceived identities or political independence. While the issues are varied and not necessarily based in ethnocentricity or a desire for isolation, the EU notion of unity through diversity is currently under strain more than ever. The idea that a group or individual has to hold one singular identity-an identity that views belonging to a broader group as something incompatible with maintaining one’s own culture- is at risk in Europe and beyond. It is therefore essential that despite the difficulties involved in the new round of enlargement-scheduled for 2025-we view the desire on the part of the Balkan countries to join a union of diverse states, and the willingness, on the part of the EU, to widen the sphere of cooperation and solidarity, as a positive trend.
We must, however, not be naïve. While recognising and welcoming this basis for optimism, we cannot ignore the fact that the motivations for enlargement on both sides may not be entirely in the intended spirit of the principles of unity, trust and inclusion. Nonetheless, the focus of the EU is currently back on the Western Balkans, following years of neglect, and the opportunities for progress and development must be seized.
The wish for greater unity or at least greater cooperation seems to be reflected to some degree in recent elections in Europe, which have offered cause for both hope and caution. Local elections in the FYR of Macedonia mark a hopeful and positive milepost in the democratic development of the country, while in Austria, the results of October’s national elections give rise to the moderate, but not unfounded, worry of the creeping rise of the far right and it’s ‘normalisation’ through its possible re-entry into mainstream politics. Elsewhere in the EU, optimism about elections this year may prove to have been premature. Demonstrations against Macron’s proposed changes to labour laws reveal that the ‘honeymoon’ period following his rapid and photogenic rise to power is over and that possibly ‘change’ is not as easy to implement and not as readily acceptable in practice as it seems during an election campaign, when it is offered as an ideal to hope for and makes a catchy motto. However, in Germany, despite the lack of clarity about the eventual form of the government, there is a palpable sense of relief, following a somewhat dull election process, that a stable, experienced and well-known figure is at the helm and that unlike the dramatically changing environment around it, Germany has a strong sense of continuity, which includes an inclusive, EU-wide focus.
We, at the CDRSEE are committed to a democratic Europe; one that is secure in its identity as a diverse union, and we are convinced that enlargement cannot and does not threaten this, but rather makes it stronger. Our work therefore focuses on the Western Balkans as a part of Europe and part of the EU. There is a lot of work to be done, in particular in the fields of education and the media. We need to foster independent thinking and enable citizens to consume information from both textbooks and the media with a critical eye, in order to participate fully in civil society. Development in both of these fields cannot be taken for granted. Both are under pressure, despite a recent loosening of the reins of local government, and the freedom of both the media and access to critical-thinking education must be constantly defended, maintained and fought for. A free media is central to the democratic functioning of a country and the EU, but control over it by governments and big businesses, combined with the rapidly decreasing capacity for the public to discern facts from fake news, present real and immediate dangers that we must confront, address and overcome.