German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, on a visit to Albania and Macedonia, stressed that Germany supported the region's EU aspirations. But, he warned that nationalistic tendencies could derail that process.
The western Balkan region is shifting back into the focus of German foreign policy. That the region is looking at a crucial next few weeks became clear during the official visit to Tirana by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. Between now and June, key decisions will be made on how much closer Albania and other countries in the Balkans will move toward the European Union.
Tirana's hope to become a candidate for membership is supported by Berlin. "Germany stands firm behind the European perspective for the states of the Western Balkans. The Albanian efforts on the path to the EU get our support as well as those of other countries in the Western Balkans," Westerwelle attested after meeting with his Albanian colleague Edmond Panariti.
Neither special conditions nor hurdles
"There can be no discounts but there also won't be any hurdles," he added. The critieria are clear: democracy, rule of law and an independent judiciary. He also stressed how important it was that different groups in the country live together peacefully and that conflicts are settled in the "spirit of cooperation."
Albania's EU ambitions, however, are being overshadowed by rising nationalism. In November last year, shortly before the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Republic of Albania, Prime Minister Sali Berisha gave a provocative speech, suggesting that all Albanians living on the Balkans should be united in one state.
Brussels was not pleased with these remarks, as they could easily cause tensions in country's with significant Albanian minorities, such as Macedonia, Greece, Montenegro and Serbia; not to mention Kosovo, which is a brand new country with an ethnic Albanian majority and large Serb minority. The US State Department, earlier, also rebuked Berisha's vision of a greater Albania, calling it a threat to the region's stability.
A warning for Berisha
German Foreign Minister Westerwelle firmly dismissed any such visions. It was important to handle nationalistic sentiment responsibly, especially in times of election campaigning, he said. In his talks with Berisha, Westerwelle had one unmistakable message for his host as well as all nationalists in the region: "The common goal of all the states in the region is, one day, to be part of the European Union, where we have freedom of movement for everybody," Westerwelle said. "That is why a redrawing of national boundaries is out of the question, including the Balkans. In Europe, borders are losing their significance."
In Tirana, Westerwelle also met with President Bujar Nishani as well as with Edi Rama, head of the opposition Socialist party. All the talks were aimed at extending bilateral cooperation, but also took a look at current domestic issues, such as the fight against corruption and crime as well as the debate over what to do with asylum seekers coming from Albania. German, as well as Albanian participants, stressed that they were in favor of stronger economic cooperation. For Albania, this is vitally important because the country is one of the poorest in Europe.
German-Albanian ties have steadily improved since the country's turn towards democracy in 1991. Albania is one Germany's development focal points. In June 2006, Tirana signed a stability and association agreement with the EU, a major step closer to Brussels. In April 2009, Albania joined NATO, Since December 2010, Albanian citizens can travel for up to three months into the Schengen zone without a visa.
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