Recently, I had the chance to join a number of leading Greek and regional experts on the Balkans at a seminar in Thessaloniki organized by the British Embassy in conjunction with the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) and SEESOX, Oxford University’s research center on Southeast Europe.
It was an extremely welcome and enlightening event. Over the course of the day, we heard a range of views on how the Western Balkans is changing. There were excellent presentations on the challenges the region faces – both in terms of the domestic politics in the various countries, as well as from growing outside influences. We also heard valuable ideas about what can be done to build a more prosperous, secure and democratically stable neighborhood.
The initiative was born as part of an effort by the British government to engage with policymakers, opinion formers, business leaders, academics, think tanks and civil society organizations, both in the United Kingdom and abroad on a range of issues related to the Western Balkans region. Later this year, London will host a gathering of Balkan leaders under the auspices of the Berlin Process – an initiative designed to encourage the countries of the region to develop their economic and political relations as part of their path towards European Union integration. And the Thessaloniki event was part of that effort to actively seek ideas on how to enhance the Process. What stood out most for me was not what was being said, but just how good it was to be back in Greece to discuss the Western Balkans.
Almost 20 years ago, I lived here in Greece. It was an exciting time to be in the country. They were halcyon days. Greek influence on regional developments was at its apogee. In the capitals of the Western Balkan countries, as well as in the corridors of the European Union, Greece led the way in advocating enlargement. Nowhere was this clearer than at the successful Thessaloniki European Council, in 2003, which laid down an agenda for the countries of the Western Balkans to accede to the EU. When it came to the region, Greece was truly seen, heard and felt.
In the 15 years since then, a lot has happened. The past decade has been particularly unkind to Greece. As the economic crisis wore on, the country’s political focus turned inwards and its voice was heard less and less. Inevitably, it ceased to be the regional powerhouse that it once was. Of course, this is not to say that Greece left the Western Balkans. Economically, it has continued to make its presence felt. However, it is hard to deny that politically it ceased to have the same degree of influence it enjoyed in the early 2000s. However, there is now a chance to change this.
Being back in Thessaloniki, a city that has such an important place in Balkans history, and seeing how Greece is finally emerging from the economic crisis, it is increasingly obvious that Greece has a pivotal role to play as a leading advocate for Western Balkan EU accession. It also needs to be at the forefront of efforts to promote regional economic, political and even cultural cooperation.
Needless to say, this will not be an overnight task. And we cannot ignore the fact that Greece is party to one of the many outstanding regional disputes that desperately need to be solved. A political settlement with Skopje would be a welcome breakthrough for the EU and the region. Nevertheless, listening to my colleagues from Greece, I was really struck just how much the Greek voice on the Western Balkans needs to be heard again.
Professor James Ker-Lindsay is Senior Research Fellow at LSEE-Research on Southeastern Europe at the London School of Economics and Political Science.