In its yearly status report on the progress EU hopefuls are making towards membership, the European Commission has good news for Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo. The report - published today (10 October) - also calls for a resumption of negotiations with EU candidate Turkey that are stalled because of the long-running territorial dispute with Cyprus.
After the "big bang" of 2004-2007, the EU enlargement is losing steam. The European Commission's voluminous yearly reports look at the state of play of the EU hopefuls' relations with Brussels.
Croatia, Turkey, Macedonia, Montenegro, Iceland and Serbia are candidate countries, whereas Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo are considered potential candidates. Croatia is due to joint the EU in 2013.
Macedonia was granted candidate status in December 2005. However, the former Yugoslav republic has been unable to start accession negotiations due to a dispute over the country's name, which is identical to a Greek province.
In the Commission documents, Macedonia and Kosovo do not even appear under those names: Macedonia is referred to as "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" and Kosovo called, under an asterisk, "Kosovo under the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244/99" because the country's unilateral independence has not been recognised by all EU countries.
EurActiv.com obtained an advance copy of the Commission reports on the nine countries - Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Iceland, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey.
The Commission recommends that the European Council grant Albania the status of candidate country, putting it in the club of candidates Turkey (1999), Croatia (2004), Macedonia (2005), Montenegro (2008) Iceland (2010) and Serbia (March 2012). Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle was due to release the recommendations Wednesday afternoon.
The proposal on Albania can be seen as conditional, as it mentions that the EU executive would make the proposal subject to completion of key judicial and public administration reforms. Nevertheless, it marks a major milestone for a country that was one of Europe’s most isolated when it emerged from communism two decades ago.
The Commission proposed a compromise approach on Macedonia, recommending that negotiations would start before a resolution of the name dispute with Greece is found. It calls for finding a solution at “an early stage of the accession negotiations”.
It is the fourth time that the Commission has recommended the start of accession negotiations with Macedonia, and each time the efforts were blocked by Greece. But this time it appears that some momentum has been introduced by a fresh move by Athens for signing a bilateral memorandum, in which both sides would commit to respecting the other's national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and renounce any territorial claims.
On Kosovo, the Commission won agreement of all EU members to launch an association process similar to the one leading to accession negotiations. The deal comes even though Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Slovakia and Romania don’t recognize the independence of the former Serbian province.
Jump-starting Turkish talks
For Turkey, the Commission calls for “resuming work” on negotiating chapters paralysed because of the Cyprus issue. So far, only one accession chapter (on science and research) has been provisionally closed. Eleven more have been opened, but eight remain blocked over Turkey's failure to implement the 2005 Ankara protocol. [More on the history of Turkey-Cyprus relations]. The Commission also voices readiness to give its support to the UN-led Cyprus reunification negotiations.
The EU executive had no real news for Serbia, which became a candidate in March but has not been given a date to start accession negotiations. The Commission says it would make a proposal as soon as Serbia improves its tenuous relations with Kosovo.
On Iceland, the paper notes that the ongoing negotiations are proceeding well. Croatia, which is a special case, as it has concluded negotiations and is expected to become EU member on 1 July 2013, is only the subject of monitoring, with a final report due next spring.
Montenegro, which opened accession negotiations in June, is encouraged to “develop a track record in the area of rule of law”.
Progress missing in Bosnia and Herzegovina
The big laggard in the group is Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the Commission notes that governance reforms are stalled.
Diplomatic language appears to indicate that the EU seriously doubts that the main ethnic entities - Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks - are interested in pursuing a common future.
“A shared vision among the political representatives on the overall direction and future of the country and its institutional set-up for the qualitative step forward on the country’s EU path remain absent,” the Commission said.
After presenting the reports at 13.30 today, Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle answered to questions. Asked how he expects that member states such as Cyprus and France to lift their veto on the frozen chapters in Turkey’s accession talks, Füle said that both the EU and Turkey “had the keys” to unblock the situation.
Regarding the keys held by Turkey, he referred to the Ankara protocol [Turkey to open its ports and airports to vessels from the Republic of Cyprus]. The very next day that Turkey delivers its commitments, the Commission will propose to open the eight chapters that remain frozen under consensual decision of the member states, he said.
Asked by EurActiv how did he hope that Greece would change its attitude and agree that accession negotiations with Macedonia be started before the name issue is solved, Füle indicated that there was a need to solve the name issue and put the country on a more stable Euro-Atlantic track in the context of the growing ethnic tensions.
He also praised Greece for putting forward a draft Memorandum of Understanding, calling it “a serious initiative” and “an important step”, made in difficult times, when the country struggles with economic and financial issues.
“They [the Greek government] care about their forthcoming presidency in [the first half of] 2014. They care about what they contribute, through their Presidency, to the European perspective of the Western Balkans,” he said.
Füle also expressed his hope that Skopje would react positively to the proposed memorandum and put forward its own ideas for its content.
“I hope very much that both parties will create more conducive atmosphere for finally solving this issue. What the Commission is proposing is compatible with that process and I think very strongly it’s [also] compatible with the United nations process and what Mr. Nimetz is doing”, he said, referring to UN Special envoy Matthew Nimetz.