With Croatia, set to join the EU in December, tiny Montenegro got the green light today (12 October) to open accession negotiations, the European Commission unveiled in its yearly Enlargement package. The move is seen as a way to keep accession alive as Macedonia and Serbia stumble over conditions.

The Commission granted three countries hope for advancing their status towards accession. However, diplomats conceded that the conditions set for Serbia and Macedonia leave the door open only to Montenegro to further engage in open accession talks (see background).

Kosovo conditionality

"In the case of Serbia, the Commission recommends that the Council should grant Serbia the status of candidate country, taking into account progress achieved so far and on the understanding that Serbia re-engages in the dialogue with Kosovo and is moving swiftly to the implementation in good faith of agreements reached to date," reads the Commission's recommendations regarding Serbia.

EurActiv sources admitted that the Kosovo conditionality was put in place to suit Germany, whose chancellor Angela Merkel has recently delivered the strongest warning so far that Belgrade should swallow its pride over the loss of its former province Kosovo, if it wants to advance toward EU membership. They also said that the political situation in Serbia left little room for maneuver for the pro-European government.

According to analysts, the nationalist political parties in Serbia now have a free hand to use the situation in the north of Kosovo as a very efficient means when dealing with the ruling, so-called "pro-European", coalition.

These parties can now easily incite protests, aggravate the tensions and begin to accuse the government of betraying Serbian interests and losing Kosovo, ahead of the elections scheduled for spring 2012.

Name dispute

In the case of Macedonia, the Commission noted that the name dispute with Greece has hampered negotiations which date back to 2009."The Commission underlines the need for a redoubling of efforts for a solution without further delay […] A solution to the name issue is long overdue," the EU executive states in its 2011-2012 Enlargement Strategy.

The Commission also recalls that "actions and statements that could negatively impact on good neighbourly relations should be avoided".

Macedonia recently infuriated Athens by erecting a huge statue of a 'warrior on horseback' resembling Alexander the Great, in the centre of Skopje. Also, the Macedonian government is likely to fuel tensions with another of its neighbours, Bulgaria. The press reported that the country's Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski himself has helped fund a film called "Third Half Time", which depicts Bulgaria as responsible for the deportation of 7,200 Jews from Macedonia.

New experiment

In fact, the only hopeful country who can claim it made a step forward is Montenegro. Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle said he is proposing to open accession negotiations with Podgorica, as the country had met the requirements previously set. Diplomats told EurActiv Montenegro had shown resolve to combat organised crime, money laundering and smuggling. Reportedly, the authorities in Podgorica have been cooperative and eager to involve the opposition and NGOs in meeting the Commission's benchmarks.

The new EU approach with Montenegro would be to start with chapter 23 and 24, "Judiciary and fundamental rights" and "Justice, freedom and security", from a very early stage. Diplomats told EurActiv that the opening of new chapters would be made conditional to the advance on these chapters, which is a completely new experiment in accession negotiations.

Until recently, Montenegro had the image of a country where corruption reached the very top of the political establishment. The country’s Prime Minister Milo Djukanović, a controversial figure suspected with ties with organised crime, resigned on 21 December 2010, in a move expected to help Montenegro’s EU integration.

And the rest…

Regarding Albania, diplomats said the political stalemate there did not allow the EU executive to go very far. In spite of the fact that a parliamentary boycott, which has lasted since the June 2009 national elections, appears to be over, the reform process would need time to re-start, they admitted.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the three communities (Serbs, Bosniaks--Bosnian Muslims--and Croats) cannot agree on forming a government or adopting a budget, despite heavy EU lobbying, is causing concern in Brussels. Officially the country wants to join the EU, but doesn't appear to deliver on EU advice.

"Bosnia and Herzegovina have to decide if their European agenda is also their national agenda," a high ranking official told EurActiv.

Kosovo had a nightmarish year with a presidential election declared unconstitutional and its prime minister dubbed as one of the "biggest fish" in organised crime in the country, according to NATO documents leaked to the UK's Guardian newspaper. EU diplomats said they wanted to keep the momentum of the relations by pursuing a visa facilitation effort.

In the case of Turkey, EU officials said they were alarmed by some statements that "went too far", as warnings that the Turkish navy could be used to stop oil and gas exploration around Cyprus. Still, the EU was hoping to maintain a "constructive relationship" by keeping the three open chapters alive, by advancing in the "visa dialogue", by deepening the Customs Union, put in place as early as 1995, and by better interaction in foreign policy.

Overall, the Commission regretted the worsening of media freedom in several enlargement countries and pledged to make efforts to address the problem.