Many bloggers criticise the proposed solution as acquiescing to what amounts to a Greater Albania.
By Misko Taleski for Southeast European Times in Skopje -- 21/07/12
The EU said it supports the idea for a Balkan Benelux, but the position it took created much opposition to it in the region. [Reuters]
The EU welcomed the idea to form a new and permanent structure -- a Balkan Benelux consisting of Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro -- but prompted fierce debate whether it is supporting in a roundabout way the establishment of Greater Albania.
"We are absolutely for any kind of integration and joint action of the countries," Peter Stano, spokesperson for the EU enlargement commissioner Stafan Fule, said.
The goal is to boost political and economic relations and accelerate EU membership, according to Austrian economist Gunter Fehlinger and Kosovo journalist Ekrem Krasniqi, who initiated the idea.
Fehlinger and Krasniqi propose an inter-governmental treaty between Albania and Kosovo, followed by invitations for Macedonia and Montenegro to join. They envision a technocratic secretariat to develop and implement measures as well as screen the governments' actions.
"Kosovo's ever-growing trade deficit puts it at the centre of this project. ...Its small businesses need to access regional markets. Albania, Montenegro and Macedonia can also serve as stepping-stones for Kosovo towards Italy, Greece and the rest of the EU," they said.
"Macedonia's main goal and interest is to make progress in the EU integration, not narrower integration with regional countries. The former is far more advanced and more significant, and it overcomes the barriers present in any narrower integrations," Aleksandar Georgiev, spokesperson for the Macedonian government, told SETimes.
Georgiev explained Macedonia has concluded free trade agreements with all European countries as well as with Turkey and Ukraine -- a 600 million people strong market.
"Limiting ourselves to a market of 8 million people is incomparable with the European markets, especially since Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo are covered by the latter," Georgiev said.
The proposal comes at a time of a heightened sensitivity, when a veteran British diplomat, former ambassador to Belgrade Sir Ivor Roberts, proposed adjusting Balkan boundaries via holding new Berlin Conference, referring to the 1878 peace conference which stabilised the then European order.
The Macedonian World Congress outright rejected a new Benelux-like union in which Macedonians, Montenegrins and Serbs will be a minority numbering 2.5 million, as opposed to 5.5 million Albanians.
"A union dominated by one ethnicity indicates it is a substitute for Greater Albania and will experience the fate of former Yugoslavia which was a substitute for Greater Serbia," it said.
Some, like Skopje resident Bekim Berisha, 51, disagreed.
"I am aware of the dangers of perceived ethnic domination. But the Balkan countries should nevertheless seek ways to create a unified market outside the economically-troubled EU," Berisha told SETimes.
Berisha argued any proposed solution should be based on the systematising economic activity and the use of the ports of Durres and Bar as alternatives to Thessaloniki.
"Trade via these ports will reduce transportation costs and, I agree with officials, it will enable harmonisation with EU directives," he said, echoing Albanian officials' views.
"Still, any integration should originate from the countries themselves, not be imposed from the outside," Berisha concluded.
Former diplomat Ognen Maleski said is surprised with the ease with which the Benelux idea was launched and supported. "[A]ny such initiative, including the EU's predecessors, the Coal and Steel Community and the European joint market ... were formed above all on geopolitical, not economic, basis."
Maleski explained peoples and states in the Benelux manifest strong degree of solidarity and close co-operation. "But in the Balkans, memories of the painful past and the accumulated mistrust generated from the existing problems directly influence the possibilities in finding more rational solutions."
Slobodanka Jovanovska said Brussels is readying to create a new EU backyard, instead of granting the regional countries full membership based on merit.
"However much the [Balkan Benelux] idea is presented as if it originated in Brussels, political reason shows it is domestic i.e., a regional one," Jovanovska said.