The Balkans is a fascinating region. It was the centre of the Ottoman Empire for many centuries and for a brief period the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is the place where the 20th century began, with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and thus the beginning of two world wars. Those wars devastated Europe and shaped the remainder of the century.
Later, the Balkans was home to Marshal Tito and his oppressive communist regime, holding together as Yugoslavia until 1992. The break-up of Yugoslavia led to bloody and vicious war, possibly best illustrated by the callous slaughter of 8,000 men and boys at Srebrenica, Bosnia in 1995.
The past is ever present in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Recently, I visited Bosnia as part of a tour of the Western Balkans in advance of Ireland's presidency of the EU in January 2013. The visit fell two days before the annual commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide. While I was in Sarajevo, more than 550 coffins were carried through the streets; the bodies of husbands, brothers, sons being returned to Srebrenica for burial 17 years after the horrific massacre.
War is not a distant memory as the people of Bosnia and Herzogovina are still, to quote the president of the country, "burying their martyrs".
This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the outbreak of war in Bosnia so while I was there I was conscious of the heavy weight of history on this small country. However, the purpose of my visit was not Bosnia and Herzegovina's past, but its future as a member of the European Union.
The history, the culture and fragmentation of the Balkans reflects the very essence of Europe. It is a rich and vibrant tapestry of culture, language and ethnic diversity, while also providing us with an uncomfortable reminder of how fragile is the peace and prosperity we take for granted in Western Europe.
I visited the region over the past week to establish two things: closer bilateral co-operation between the six Western Balkan countries and Ireland; and a process for assisting these countries on their path to European Union membership during Ireland's presidency of the European Council in 2013.
The first part should be natural for us. Irish people have an affinity with countries like Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzogovina. We abhor the war and murder of innocent people that occurred there, and we are always conscious of the ongoing role of members of the Irish Defence Forces and An Garda Siochana in working for peace, security and stability in the region.
We also remember the Bosnian and Croatian refugees whom we welcomed to Ireland in the early 1990s as they escaped the war. That period had a profound impact on all of Europe, not least Ireland. Deepening our bilateral relations with these countries is a natural step.
The second focus of my visit was to help set out a path for the countries of the Western Balkans towards eventual EU membership. As Ireland takes over the presidency of the EU next January, we are in a strong position to inject momentum into the process. Croatia, thankfully, is well on the road and is due to join the union on July 1, 2013.
While I was in Croatia last week, President Michael D Higgins signed the Bill which formally gives Ireland's assent to Croatia's membership. This is an important milestone on the journey to the reunification of Europe. However, the other five Balkan countries still have a long way to go.
The challenges faced by the countries of the Balkans are in some ways similar to the challenges faced by Ireland when we joined the European Community 39 years ago. Communities riven by mistrust and loathing, born of a bloody war, were not uncommon to us.
Our own peace process can provide a good example. We managed to get divided communities to work together at local level to build trust and mutual understanding. Working together with other countries in the European arena allowed Ireland and the UK to reach a new, more mature relationship, one not dominated by the past.
This is something Bosnia and Herzegovina and its neighbours can also achieve as part of the EU process.
It is clear that the pain and suffering in the Balkans region is still extremely raw. It is all too easy for various factions, religious and ethnic groups to perpetuate the horror of the Balkans war through divisive and bitter politics. The option of national politics degenerating into further bitterness and discord is not one that we should entertain in Europe.
We must continue to offer hope and opportunity. Progress is slow and often frustrating, but so it was in Ireland.
We cannot force change and reform in Serbia or Montenegro or Macedonia, but we can incentivise it. Change must come from within, but that change can only be driven by a commitment from the European Union that every step towards reform and renewal will be rewarded.
We cannot expect political leaders and citizens in these countries to make sacrifices to achieve reform, if the EU is not prepared to live up to its commitments.
There is a lot of work still to be done to secure a future for the Balkan countries and the EU has to honour its side of the bargain. EU Leaders met in Tessaloniki, Greece in 2003, where they pledged their commitment to the Balkan countries joining the European Union.
Nine years later, only one country is poised to join. It is time for the EU to make good on its promise of EU membership for these countries. I will be making this a priority for our presidency and will do everything I can to push the EU accession process forward for all the countries of the Western Balkans in the coming months. The reunification of our continent will not be complete until that happens.
Lucinda Creighton is Minister for European Affairs