It takes decades, not just years, for societies to adopt a new value system, says writer Anila Wilms, and this is also true of the Western Balkans and its forthcoming accession to the EU.
The European Commission recently scored a coup. The last white speck on the map of Europe, the Western Balkans, is going to join the EU. Not at some point in the distant future, but soon: in 2025. We are rubbing our eyes in disbelief. I wasn't sure I'd live to see the day. Somehow, though, I don't feel as overjoyed as I thought I would.
It's worth taking a good look at the paper the commission has published on the subject. This paper makes it unmistakably clear how people in Brussels think of the Western Balkans: as a very sick person lying right on the EU's doorstep, for whom it must therefore assume responsibility. This accession is nothing other than a "geostrategic investment in the security" of citizens, the paper says. It's about police forces and judiciaries cooperating for purposes of border security and the repatriation of illegal migrants, to act against terrorism and radicalization in the EU, arms and drug smuggling, money laundering. There's also the economic aspect: The region is a promising market for EU goods and services, and will get prosperity and "good governance" in return.
There follows a dizzyingly long to-do list for the accession candidates: human rights, constructive political dialog, media independence, minority rights, fighting organized crime and corruption in officialdom. And the overriding, crucial point: the resolution of conflicts between neighbors.
Two very different value systems
You can tell: This point is the key, the Western Balkans' fundamental problem. All of its sicknesses have to do with the way its people deal with conflicts. Because conflicts, in the Balkans, are not resolved. They are settled. And woe betide the loser.
The Balkan peoples are traditional warrior peoples. Their development has known none of the historical phenomena that shaped central Europe in the modern era: the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution.
Read more: The Western Balkans: A region of secessions
Yes, Europe is well ahead in matters of consensus, compromise, cooperation. And of course the development of societies can and should move only in this direction.
What are the prospects?
Given the widespread EU-fatigue, "facts and information" are to be deployed to convince EU citizens of the advantages of the Balkan countries' accession. It will, without a doubt, be costly, which is why the convergence should take place gradually, compared with the earlier, more abrupt EU expansions.
However, it is the Balkan countries that will be required make the greater sacrifices. Life there should gradually harmonize with the daily life of the EU, "down to what children learn in school." The EU members-in-waiting are being asked to adopt a new system of values. They must set to work with a powerful "political will," must "redouble their efforts," and take advantage of this "unique window" of opportunity.
The Balkan peoples are being asked to do nothing less than substitute their souls. It's conceivable that this idea is a painful one for those concerned. Quite apart from the fact that no one wants to give up their identity just like that, life in the Balkans can really be very sweet. Friendships are valued very highly, as are family ties. These relationships involve a lot of mutual exchange, attentiveness, and of course helping each other, as well as decency, respect and loyalty. People are well-read, reflective and musical; they have noble ideals and big hearts; they can laugh from the bottom of their heart and make each other happy.
Their tales of heroism are part of their collective identity, too, which has always been a source of immense pride. At the same time, more and more people, especially the young, are realizing that something is not right in their souls. The culture of nationalistic hatred is clawing at their hearts, and when the heat dissipates, all that's left are wounds and a yawning emptiness.
So the proverbial longing for Europe is essentially just that: the longing for peace, the desire for recovery. I think there is hope for the Western Balkans.
A new building
This kind of recovery is possible. I experienced it in Germany. And the example of Germany since World War II shows that entire peoples are capable of learning new ways of dealing with conflicts and aggression.
Read more: German parliament commemorates Holocaust
If it is in "the EU's own interest" to take the Western Balkans along with it – if, given the general situation, there is an urgent need for European peoples to converge – then the EU needs an entirely new concept. A bigger building, with a solid foundation, with many floors, and rooms of different kinds for all the members of the extended family. If the vision of Europe as a stable, functioning family of peoples, in which every member contributes their own strengths, is one day to be realized, we will need foresight, sensibility, skill, and above all staying power. 2025 may be the first step; in reality, though, this is a task for a whole generation.
Albanian writer Anila Wilms has lived in Berlin since 1994. Her first novel, "Albanian oil, or murder on the road to the north," was published in German in 2012.