Although the EU faces severe challenges from the weakened economy and struggles to avoid financial catastrophe in Greece, Portugal and Spain, membership in the confederation remains an important goal for nations in the Western Balkans.
Croatia is scheduled to become the EU's 28th member next year, and Macedonia is campaigning for an invitation this spring. Serbia is reveling it its newly-won status as an EU candidate, while Kosovo, independent for only four years, is only starting the process.
"The countries of Western Balkan are part of Europe, they have always been and they will always be. Challenges of the 21st century are global challenges and no single and small country can face them alone. We need to be strong as Europeans; only a strong European Union can be a strong and credible player in the international scene," Tanja Fajon, the European Parliament's rapporteur on visa liberalisation for the Western Balkans, told SETimes.
"I am convinced that EU will get out of this financial and economic crisis even stronger. It will take time and a lot of political courage, but there is no better way for our European countries and the region as the integration, sharing our common values and principles, freedom of movement and goods, respect of human rights, religions, and cultures," Fajon said.
Serbian Minister of Environment, Mining and Spatial Planning Oliver Dulic said that EU membership means a certificate of the country's credit rating and security for investors.
"It brings the inflow of foreign investment and EU funds, as a great benefit to less developed countries like Serbia," Dulic told SETimes.
Danica Popovic, an economics professor at the University of Belgrade and an expert in macroeconomic theory and models, believes that despite the crisis with the euro, the EU is the best solution for Serbia; given its weakened monetary system.
"Serbia is not able to solve its own accumulated financial problems; the EU is a major support," Popovic told SETimes.
Yet others are wary of accession. "We will end up like Greece. We will never be free of slavery that [they] impose for their loans," Belgrade taxi driver Prvoslav Tanaskovic told SETimes.
Milan Vranjkovic, a student of the Faculty of Security in Belgrade, is more optimistic. "The EU gives us a better political position in the international arena, as well as internal political stability," he told SETimes.
In neighbouring Macedonia, Antonio Milososki, president of parliament’s foreign policy commission, said the EU means stability. "Macedonia wants to be part of the European family. The EU proved stable in terms of international politics, unlike Europe during the First and Second World Wars," he told SETimes.
"A second important aspect is solidarity," said Milososki, a former foreign minister. "When any member countries are undergoing crisis, the European Union seeks to solve that problem. And the third aspect is the common economic market and high quality products will find that market."
Membership is important "because of the increased opportunities that will be opened. For example, the increased mobility of the youth and bigger opportunities for them to attend education institutions across Europe, then the easier access to the labour market and so on," Deputy Prime Minister for EU integration Teuta Arifi told SETimes.
Velimir Simonovic, a student of information technology and electronics, concurs. "We have high unemployment. Entry into the EU would mean opening the market for investment by foreign companies and will be open new jobs, as a direct policy of our country. Also, that will mean opening an opportunity for Macedonian exports to conquer markets in Europe and in other countries," he told SETimes.
Snezana Najdovska, director of a mental hospital in Demir Hisar, agrees. "Macedonia is in a transitional period of building the social system. That means strengthening the capacity of institutions. With accession, we have expectations to achieve a high degree of standardisation of institutions that will significantly improve conditions of work. European funds give a chance to drag funds to invest in the quality in our institutions," she told SETimes.
Kosovo Minister of European Integration Vlora Citaku is philosophical about the crisis with the euro and the broader eurozone. "History has shown that even in the past, there have been even bigger crises, such as the one of the 1930s, but they have been overcome and have stimulated a more stable economic and financial development. Europe is in a crisis now, but we can say that at the same time, there is a consensus and solidarity between its members to overcome this crisis," Citaku told SETimes.
Fatmir Curri, European integration programme co-ordinator at the non-profit Kosovar Civil Society Foundation, says that despite the crisis, the EU "continues to be one of the most powerful regional and supra-national organisations". He told SETimes "the EU has still value because it offers security and stability in the old continent; it offers possibility and a market to make business. It is an environment with high level standards of security and entrepreneurship, and despite how developed a country can be, it needs to be part of an entity such as the EU."
Medi Shala, 47, a taxi driver in Pristina, says he is vague on the specifics. "The main problem for me is that after the latest agreements, it is not even clear any more how Kosovo will be represented in the EU and how it will get in there. I don’t know what we will do there," Shala told SETimes.
But for Pristina resident Egzon Musliu, 25, "Getting into the EU means respect of some principles, which are necessary, especially here, such as rule of law and fighting corruption. When these principles are applied, then the economic situation improves," Musliu told SETimes. Yet he says Kosovo politicians lack the will to do these things, adding "as long as it is like that, the EU is far away."
Fajon said Croatia's successful accession next year is an important message that the EU is still valued, despite the crises it faces. "The success of the Western Balkans' EU accession is needed as a part of the overall success of Europe to establish itself as a viable and powerful global factor in the world of today and tomorrow. European integration is the greatest political economic and social success in the history of Europe."
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Distributed via Southeast European Times