People in the Balkans face a stark choice this year: their region could either finally resolve its outstanding problems from the wars of the 1990s or fall back into instability and extremes of nationalism. The first option would take them forward towards stability, prosperity and European integration. But many commentators believe the second is inevitable.I disagree with the prophecies of doom. There is certainly a danger of instability, at the moment when Kosovo's future status is on the point of being resolved. But the repercussions need not be destabilising if the EU gives a decisive and unified steer to ensure a coordinated response, as foreign ministers meeting today should be aware.
No other international actor will be so directly affected by the outcome - neither Russia nor the United States - and we are ready to carry our responsibility to support stability and progress in the region. The western Balkans has made steady if uneven progress over recent years, and the goal of EU membership remains an important motivation to keep reforms on track. Clearly, the region's future lies in the EU, and most people would rather get there sooner than later.
In fact, all the countries could make faster progress along the road to Europe. By the end of this year, I hope they will all pass through the gateway towards candidacy for membership, by signing a stabilisation and association agreement with the EU. Albania and Montenegro have already done so, as has the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which could soon demonstrate its readiness to begin accession negotiations if it can maintain sufficient political will and cross-party dialogue to drive through serious reforms.
The EU is now waiting for Bosnia and Herzegovina and for Serbia to meet the remaining conditions to sign the agreement. I want to see both countries take a decisive step forward, not only because it would move them closer to the EU, but primarily for the benefit of their own citizens.
The doomsday prophecies for Bosnia and Herzegovina have so far been proven wrong. The country's leaders made important progress last year on police reform, with the goal of ensuring the rule of law and separating policing from politics. There is much at stake in Serbia. The EU foreign ministers should today give a strong signal of Serbia's European future by deciding to sign the stabilisation and association agreement shortly. Serbia is close to full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which is essential to allow the country to turn the page on one of the darkest periods in its history.
Serbia's institutional capacity gives it great potential to move faster towards the European Union. It has the chance to draw closer to qualifying for candidate status, maybe even during the course of this year. Seldom have citizens had as clear a choice as the Serbs do now, between a nationalist past and a European future.
The EU is ready to welcome the citizens of Serbia into Europe, not just through a contractual relationship with their state, but also individually. This is demonstrated by the commission's launch of a dialogue on visa-free travel for Serbs that will start this week.
The future for the Balkans can be far from dark. In the EU, there has never been a stronger political will to support the people of the western Balkans in opting for European values and living standards. But ultimately people in the region have to exercise their democratic choice to determine their countries' future course.
Olli Rehn, the European commissioner responsible for enlargement and the author of Europe's Next Frontiers.