Now that the latest EU enlargement has finally been ratified, there are some who are already thinking about the further expansion of the Union. One region that will surely be considered in regard to any future enlargement is the Balkans, which is slowly beginning to stabilise after a decade of ethnic conflict. Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla has already publicly backed the idea of pushing the EU's borders eastwards to include the Balkan countries.
One of recent history's greatest ironies is the fact that while most of Europe was engaged in trying to achieve greater integration during the 1990s, the former Yugoslavia was busy tearing itself apart in a series of bloody and vicious conflicts, which at one point threatened to destabilise the entire surrounding area.
Now, however, an uneasy peace has held in the Balkans for the past few years and the region is slowly starting to get back on its feet. It is hoped that the EU could play a major role in consolidating this recovery. In the long term, eventual EU membership seems the best way of guaranteeing an upturn in the fortunes of the Balkan countries whose economies have been ravaged by years of conflict. It is also in the EU's interest to ensure that no further hostilities erupt to threaten the peace and stability that are cornerstones of the European integration process.
Dr Jacques Rupnik, an expert in international relations, was in Prague this week to give a lecture on Europe's future dealings with the Balkans. He believes that becoming part of the larger European community offers the region its best hope of finally exorcising the ethnic and racial hatreds that have plagued it down through the years.
Nevertheless, Dr Rupnik also warns that the EU must be vigilant in ensuring that the violence and internecine conflict that ravaged the Balkans for over a decade did not re-ignite and endanger the stability of the region:
"The European Union cannot afford benign neglect towards the Balkans. I see a danger now because the war has ended and the European Union is so absorbed in digesting this enlargement of 10 new countries, and the United States is absorbed by 'great adventures' in the Middle East. As a result, the Balkans might suffer from marginalisation. That's a very risky situation because we have unfinished business there - in Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Bosnia..."
Many of the European Union's acceding countries, particularly those with Slavic populations, have a greater historical and cultural affinity with the Balkans than do many of their western counterparts. Given that new EU countries such as the Czech Republic have close ties with the Balkans, does Dr Rupnik think that they can bring anything new to the table in terms of the European Union's dealings with the region?
"Well, they can certainly bring their knowledge of the region as well as their historical and cultural closeness. Of course, their involvement is also significant. They've been involved in peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo and elsewhere. Therefore the so-called Common Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union already exists de facto in the Balkans. This is one of the few areas where the European Union has actually got its act together after many failures. And the new members are playing a very active role there."
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