Now that the European Union can at last see an end to its interminable institutional wrangle with ratification of the Lisbon treaty – the showboating Czech president Vaclav Klaus notwithstanding – it should find ways of confidently reasserting its raison d’être: to anchor democratic stability and spread prosperity.

It could do worse than speeding up a stalled enlargement process to embrace the western Balkans.

Why is this so important? It is not just moral reparation for the feckless, self-serving inadequacy with which the EU and the west European powers mismanaged the wars of the Yugoslav succession. Nor is it some imperial vocation for expansion and homogenisation. It is much more straightforward.

The western Balkans are already inside the EU’s eastern borders. Through the already very costly provision of economic aid and a large military presence, the Union, along with its allies, is trying to put a political roof on the Balkans. Its success is provisional, little more than keeping the lid on frozen conflicts. This ethnically and religiously mixed-up region does not fit easily into neat nation-states – even after the violent population transfers of the civil wars of the 1990s. It needs the multinational umbrella of EU membership.

Despite its expensive deployment of political and economic resources, moreover, the EU is unable to deploy the weapons a clearer perspective of membership and eventual accession would bring to these countries: regional aid to build up a border-flattening sub-regional infrastructure; big flows of investment that typically accompany the process of entering the EU; and the less quantifiable instilling of the democratic culture of compromise.

As things stand, the EU presence in the region, overseeing protectorates such as Bosnia and Kosovo, looks quasi-imperial but not altogether successful. There are problems bringing these fractious states in. But these are already EU problems – and they could rapidly worsen. This week’s mildly optimistic Brussels report-card on enlargement should start a new push to bring the western Balkans in faster, before a new cycle of conflict and Balkanisation ignites.

The EU must use the leverage of eventual membership to induce these states to compete in tackling everything from corruption to handing over those indicted for war crimes, such as Ratko Mladic. But after failing so dismally in the 1990s, the EU has the chance to lay to rest the delirium of Greater Serbia and the delusion of Greater Albania. It must not fluff it.

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