Europe's southeastern flank feels abandoned by the EU - and not for the first time. It's a familiar scenario: Spurred by European ideals, people have been striving for democracy, independence and prosperity. But the political climate in the formerly communist states has been unable to create economic and social reforms on its own. It's something that's been known for the quarter of a century since the fall of the Iron Curtain - both in Brussels and Berlin. Germany and the EU promised help, and supported, more or less, the states in Southeastern Europe.
In recent months, tens of thousands of people have turned their backs on their homeland of Kosovo. Without aid from the EU and the US, this mass exodus will be unstoppable, DW’s Robert Schwartz writes.
The Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe was supposed to be the short-term instrument by which the EU provided financial support for the region's transition to democracy and a market economy following the war in Yugoslavia. But not much of this support got through to the people there. Not only because there wasn't nearly enough money, but also because much of it disappeared into dark channels as the donors exercised only superficial control over it. Mismanagement and corruption in the countries themselves, combined with sluggish investment from the rich nations and massive unemployment, drove many people into poverty and destitution. And made them decide to leave.
Don't say you weren't warned
The latest example is Kosovo. The whole discussion by the EU interior ministers about liberalizing visa policies and declaring it a "safe country of origin" is obsolete. Life in Kosovo is just as safe or unsafe for its citizens as it is for the people of Serbia, Macedonia and Albania. It's the poverty that has become too much to bear for many Kosovars. First, the most vulnerable leave - often these are Roma escaping their misery. But soon well-educated young people follow, desiring a better life in an EU country. And that happens even though they know that the recognition rate of their asylum claims is zero and most will be deported.
For the EU, but also for the US, the current wave of refugees from Kosovo should be a new wake-up call. But how many wake-up calls have there been already? A country was brought into existence with massive aid; from the beginning, its prospects were weak without continuous and long-term economic and political support. Brussels and Washington still bear responsibility for not leaving the youngest state in Europe to fend for itself.
But Kosovo is not by any means the only example of a failed development policy in the heart of Europe. It was a similar scenario that brought Bulgaria and Romania - and, Brussels hoped, would one day bring the entire Western Balkans - to the EU, albeit slowly and with enormous hurdles. A solidarity pact - like the German "solidarity surcharge" for the former-communist east - would certainly have been more effective for the people of Southeastern Europe.
A German model
It shouldn't be glossed over that there was also a significant migration from eastern Germany to the richer west. But this never became an exodus. And the fast recovery visible in the eastern states has led to intensified investment. Unemployment remains under control and the living conditions and wages can measure up to those in the western German states.
But people in Southeastern Europe hardly dare to dream about a development of this kind. All they want is a decent life in their homeland. As long as this is not likely in the medium term, it will drive many into exile - including from Kosovo. Most of them will try to remain in their destination countries illegally after their asylum application is rejected and keep their heads above water through undeclared work. From their perspective, a life like this is incomparably more bearable than the misery at home.
An overdue change of course
The EU must finally admit that its policy on the Southeastern European periphery was not right. That takes courage and political responsibility - and the will to take a new tack on the issue of poverty migration despite the acute crises in Ukraine and Greece.
The call for a Marshall Plan (as for Western Europe after the Second World War) or a "solidarity tax" (as for the former East Germany) for the countries in this region is not new. No one in the EU or the US seems to heed - or want to heed - this call. As long as there is no solution in sight that really makes a difference to the people, there will always be large groups in Europe who turn their backs on their countries to escape the misery - and to secure a decent future for themselves and above all their children.