Negotiations with Serbia can pull neighbouring states into accession swirl

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Last week’s release of the annual EU progress reports on the Western Balkans and Turkey brings the EU’s accession policies back into the international spotlight. The prospect of starting membership negotiations with the EU has led to positive political developments and more stability in the Balkans, Dominik Tolksdorf writes.

Dominik Tolksdorf is researcher at the Paris-based Institut français des relations internationales (IFRI).

Several countries in the Balkans have made progress on their way into the EU: Montenegro started accession negotiations with the EU last year and has since completed two chapters on policy areas. The European Commission has also recommended in its progress report that membership negotiations start with Macedonia, which overcame a political crisis at the beginning of the year. In addition, Albania, with a more stable political situation, will probably be granted EU candidate status in the upcoming weeks. Kosovo will soon start negotiations on an association agreement with the EU that might be signed as early as 2014.

Most striking is the progress seen in Serbia, long considered the eternal troublemaker in the region. The governments of Serbia and Kosovo achieved an historic breakthrough in April 2013 when they completed an agreement concerning the normalization of their relations. Critical to this agreement was Serbia’s concession to dismantle its parallel structures in North Kosovo in exchange for the right to form an association of the Serb-inhabited municipalities and to grant them a high level of autonomy within Kosovo.

The Serbian government’s agreement on the compromise was unprecedented, and Belgrade still has to convince the Serbs in North Kosovo to bite the bullet and accept it. An important test of the resilience of the agreement will be the municipal elections in Kosovo on November 3, 2013. According to the April agreement, citizens from the Serb-inhabited municipalities in North Kosovo will be asked to take part in elections that they have boycotted for years to elect representatives for Kosovo’s institutions. Both the Serbian government and the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church have called on local Serbs to participate in the elections.

An important motivator for Serbia in signing the April Agreement was the prospect of starting EU membership negotiations in early 2014. The implementation of the agreement is therefore taken seriously by both sides, and failure to comply can lead to harsh criticism by one of the parties. This dynamic was recently seen when the government of Kosovo denied Serbian politicians the right to enter North Kosovo during the election campaigns. In response Serbia’s Prime Minister Ivica Dačić condemned this political choice on the part of Kosovo as an obstruction of the April Agreement and threatened to discontinue talks in Brussels. Fortunately, the escalating conflict was settled shortly before the publication of the progress reports under the auspices of the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who mediated talks between the Prime Ministers of Serbia and Kosovo.

Although it remains to be seen how many Serbs will in the end participate in the elections, these events suggest the resiliency of the April agreement, and, more importantly, that it provides a functional mechanism for long-term reconciliation process between both countries. The prospect of EU membership negotiations can therefore be viewed as the main contributing factor to preventing conflict and ensuring the agreement is maintained.

The EU should ensure Serbia’s continuing commitment to the agreement by firmly engaging Belgrade into the membership negotiations in upcoming years. The new progress report provides a sound testimonial of Serbia’s efforts in meeting the criteria for EU accession in the past months. Although the EU does not ignore Serbia’s deficits (the EU has recently harshly criticized the government’s banning of a gay pride march), prospects are good that the negotiations will still run smoothly. Serbia’s aspiration to accelerate its EU integration process is also clearly influenced by Croatia’s EU entry in July 2013, which demonstrated that the prospect of gaining membership can materialize if there is sufficient commitment by the applicant state.

If Serbia’s membership negotiations start next year and proceed smoothly there is a good chance that this will also pull its neighbouring countries into the accession swirl, particularly Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the EU “membership carrot” has so far shown almost no effects. Indeed, doing so would encourage countries in the Western Balkans to overcome common sources of instability, including high unemployment (especially among youths), corruption, ineffective rule of law institutions and partial judiciaries, and poor protection and lack of integration of minority groups.

The past year has demonstrated that the prospect of EU membership can be a powerful incentive for governments to take unprecedented decisions toward stability and conflict resolution. While the EU’s accession policies are not a panacea for all of the problems facing the Balkans, they have the potential to steadily improve dynamics in the region.

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