With so many foreign policy hot spots around the world, many Americans take the stability of Europe for granted. But as recent events in Ukraine remind us, we have yet to reach the point at which Europe is truly “whole and free.” In the Balkans, great strides have been made as some countries have entered the European Union and NATO and others appear on the path toward future Euro-Atlantic integration. Yet we must not lose focus, as other nations in the region are still working to consolidate their gains and overcome the legacy of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
This week marks the sixth anniversary of Kosovo’s independence in 2008. Since that time, Kosovo has built the infrastructure of a modern state. It is now a vibrant democracy with an improving economy and business environment. Today, 105 countries recognize Kosovo, and it is a member of international organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
The past 12 months have been particularly noteworthy. In April 2013, Kosovo signed a historic agreement with Serbia, with the support of the EU, normalizing relations between the two states. In October, the EU launched negotiations with Kosovo on an agreement that will bring the country closer to Europe. And in November Kosovo held an overwhelmingly peaceful and orderly local election that marked an important step forward for its young multiethnic democracy.
Given where Kosovo was just a decade ago, this progress is remarkable. But even with its achievements, challenges remain. Domestically, the jobless rate is still high, corruption remains a concern, and interethnic trust and cooperation must improve. The bottom line is that the work of consolidating democracy, prosperity, and security in Kosovo, and indeed in the Balkans, is not yet done.
I see three factors as critical to ensuring the lasting success of Kosovo and its neighbors. First, the United States must remain directly and actively engaged in Kosovo and the wider region. Recent history has shown that progress in the Balkans has always been accompanied by high-level U.S. attention, and now — when Kosovo’s notable achievements are still solidifying — is not the moment for us to shift our attention and resources away. We have invested heavily in Kosovo, and we need to stay focused to keep the process on track.
Second, normalized relations between Kosovo and Serbia is key to both countries’ development, as well as wider regional stability. Both must build on the accomplishments of the past year and tackle the difficult task of implementing the April 2013 agreement. This means that Kosovo must continue down the path of integrating Serbs and other minorities and Serbia must dismantle the parallel structures in northern Kosovo, which are a lingering source of instability. Here again, I see a key role for the United States in support of the implementation process.
Finally, the best way to consolidate democracy, prosperity, and security is for Kosovo, and indeed all countries in the region, to integrate fully into Euro-Atlantic institutions. The opening of negotiations with the EU was an important first step, but the EU needs to expedite the visa liberalization process to allow Kosovars to travel freely to the EU — a right enjoyed by citizens of all of its neighbors. The EU must also provide Pristina a clear path to eventual membership, unobstructed by extraneous political burdens, and help Kosovo meet the EU’s requirements.
Similarly, Kosovo deserves a pathway toward NATO. All other Balkan states are either NATO members or in the alliance’s Partnership for Peace, and it would be unfair to exclude Kosovo, one of the most Western-oriented countries in the world. In the near-term, NATO should extend an invitation for Kosovo to join the Partnership for Peace, as it has done for virtually every other state throughout Europe. Denying Kosovo a route to eventual NATO membership would only maintain an island of instability and uncertainty in the region. Conversely, a Kosovo integrated into NATO would mean a region at peace and a military configured to fulfill alliance objectives rather than preparing to meet the challenge of significantly better-armed neighbors.
Of course, membership in the EU and NATO are not free. Kosovo will need to do the hard work to meet the requirements of both organizations, and its road will be even steeper because of possible opposition from member states which, unfairly and unconstructively, still do not recognize Pristina. But I have every confidence that Kosovo, with its growing support, will succeed.
The United States has stood by Kosovo as its people have triumphed over incredible adversity, and I look forward to seeing our partnership continue to flourish, as Kosovo builds a prosperous and secure democracy within a Europe whole, free and at peace.
Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y. is the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.