Number twentyeight and more to come

I visited Croatia for the first time almost exactly twenty five years ago – as a tourist to Dubrovnik together with my wife Karin. It is a lovely place. It was hard to imagine at that time that it would be involved in a war just a few years later.

My second visit to Croatia took place in a totally different setting around eight years later, February 1996. The war was over, and additionally a fragile peace had just been concluded for Bosnia-Hercegovina. A delegation from the Swediah development agency Sida was passing through Zagreb and Split on our way to Sarajevo. The Balkans had been through some devastating wars already and one more was approaching – Kosovo three years later.

These are very recent experiences. New brutal wars in Europe when we thought we had left that behind us. At that time the idea of Croatia as a member of EU and Serbia starting membership negotiations would have seemed totally out of reach.

It is easy to forget these achievements in the present European mood, strongly affected by crisis, unemployment and austerity. Croatians don’t. In the middle of the crisis in Europe they voted with a large majority to join EU. As the Croatian Ambassador to Poland Ivan DelVechio said at the celebration in Warsaw this Sunday: Croatia is coming home.

In parallell the European Council last week decided to open membership negotiations with Serbia and negotiations about a stabilisations- and association agreement with Kosovo. How could that be? Because Serbia and Kosovo have started cooperating. Not an easy process but it is clearly moving in the right direction. The prospects of EU integration means reforms, peaceful cooperation, hopes for a better future for citizens quite recently being the victims of authoritarian regimes, violence and war.

Yesterday Croatia became the 28th member of the EU. There are more to come. It might take some time but the whole process of enlargement is indispensably linked to the core idea of the EU: securing peace and democracy on our continent.

For six countries in the former Soviet Union – Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus – the EU 2009 established a new format for EU integration, the Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiated jointly by Poland and Sweden. Last week I participated as a panelist in a conference in Poznań, initiated by the Marshal of Wielkopolska Marek Woźniak, on the role of local and regional selfgovernment in supporting development in the Eastern Partnership countries.

It made me recall some of my experiences as Regional Director for Central- and Eastern Europe and Central Asia at Sida between 1995 and 2004.

City twinning was one of our most successful programmes in the Baltic countries and Russia because it connected politicians and professionals in a cooperation with a clear hands-on-character. Democracy was discussed and developed not as a theoretical concept but through practical sharing of experiences, often related to very specific municipal challenges. This cooperation, municipal partnerships, with support from our development budget is now continuing in several EaP-countries and it can include even a third partner e.g. from Poland.

I was happy to note the cooperation now established between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on one side and the municipalities and regions in Poland on the other to support this kind of international cooperation. According to our experiences it is a good mechanism for supporting the development of democracy and a necessary decentralisation in former communist countries from below. And I believe Poland knows this better than any of us.

A new summit for the Eastern Partnership in Vilnius in November is a major event for the new Lithuanian EU Presidency that started yesterday. Not an easy process for sure but a crucial one needing long term engagement from us all.

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