Western Balkans: A regatta in stormy weather

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The European Union should adopt a "regatta" approach to membership hopefuls in the Western Balkans as a competitive race for accession should spur reforms in the countries concerned, argues Bojan Sarkic, a former senior Montenegrin diplomat.

Bojan Sarkic is a former senior Montenegrin diplomat and has represented his country to Russia, the United Kingdom, NATO and the European Union.

"In these hot summer days (if you are in the region, not in Brussels), whether you are in Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Serbia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, or Kosovo, you might look for a 'shady spot', preferably close to the blue deep of the Adriatic, to sparkling lakes, or chilly mountain rivers. The editors of the local newspapers will be struggling to fill up their news spaces – life is moving towards the beaches – including political news.

Meanwhile, all the above-mentioned countries are lining up to join the European family (even in that written order). Certainly Croatia made a fantastic leap. They will sign the accession treaty, most probably in the second week of this coming December, and become a full member on 1 July 2013. That should be a huge boost for all the others.

Macedonia, or officially the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, has the longest 'experience' as a candidate country. For a couple of years it has been stuck both in the EU and NATO processes, mainly because of the name issue. The two sides, the Greek and Macedonian governments, cannot find a common solution, behaving on that question quite often completely irrationally.

Certainly Skopje suffers more from the consequences. And the times are difficult both for Macedonians and for Greeks at the moment. It would be positive that the EU should finally give a date for the start of the accession negotiations with Macedonia, leaving the dispute about the name to be resolved before Macedonia signs its accession treaty, which should not be expected in the next five to ten years.

Montenegro, a candidate country, stormed through the pre-accession process. Small and manageable with a stable political situation, Montenegro is expecting a date for its pre-accession talks. Whether it gets it this December depends not only on its reforms, tackling corruption, nepotism and an inefficient and politically influenced judiciary system, and enhancing its weak administrative capacity, but also on the political ideas within the Brussels administration concerning general regional politics.

Montenegro is pursuing a faster NATO integration goal (probably in 2013). With regard to EU accession, it could be wrapped into a joint EU package with Macedonia and Serbia.

This year the European Commission's annual progress reports on South-Eastern Europe (SEE) countries will be 'ready' a little bit earlier than the last few years. They will be unveiled in October rather than November, and hopefully provide an insight into the EU's plans for the region.

In this context, certainly the main issue will be Serbia. Serbia is the biggest country of the Western Balkans with probably the best administrative capacity besides Croatia, but with a huge number of unresolved questions. Regarding Serbia's progress, certainly, the most important questions are Kosovo and cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

Serbia could get, just as Macedonia and Montenegro, candidate status as a goodwill gesture from the EU, following the extradition to The Hague of Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic. Serbia probably even expects a date for the start of its EU accession talks to be announced.

But the big burden on Serbia's back is Kosovo. 'Paying the bill' of policies put in place much earlier, the administration of President Boris Tadic did not manage to find a strategic way out from this difficult situation. On the contrary, some clumsy diplomatic moves in recent times even managed to jeopardise its European process.

Luckily, within the Serbian political scene, there are voices saying that Serbia should 'let Kosovo go'.  Serbia will need some time to overcome that problem, but such a solution looks inevitable and certain. Were it to happen Serbia would have the most to gain.

Serbia's influence on the internal matters of Bosnia and Herzegovina via the Serbian entity of Republika Srpska could also be of important political weight. The EU should put extra efforts to strengthen the state structures of Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially in areas under Croat and Serbian influence (part of Herzegovina and Republika Srpska).

In a nutshell, it looks very much that in December, Croatia will sign the accession treaty, and for Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia it will be realistic to believe that they might start their talks sometime in 2012. But that does not mean that this group could stay 'together till the end of the process'. It is better for all the countries, and also for the EU, to stick to the 'regatta principle' rather than that of acceding together. The 'regatta principle' could be a stimulus and a 'carrot' for all the candidates.

The last three countries of South-Eastern Europe – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Kosovo – are very much behind the others.

BiH is unfortunately still suffering from years of war and bloodshed. It is very much 'in intensive care' with a fragile relationship between its entities. The wounds of the past are often irritated by some 'local political players' who were in different ways involved in the creation of the Bosnian nightmare and divisions within the country. The presence of the EU in BiH is inevitable, with every reason, including the Office of the High Representative (OHR) with all his powers.

Albania became a full member of NATO, but is lagging behind in the EU accession process, mainly due to internal political problems, disagreements and the malfunctioning of democratic institutions (Parliament).

Kosovo is still fighting for its full recognition. Some EU countries have not recognised Kosovo, as well as such important world players such as China and Russia, to name just a few, etc. As it is not a member of the UN, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other international and non-governmental organisations (e.g. FIFA), Kosovo remains another burden to be carried by the EU.

But the EU has to continue enlargement until the whole of South-Eastern Europe is incorporated. In my view, some of wounds would not be healed completely even on the countries' accession day. In spite of Brussels' other issues obscuring the horizon, such as the eurozone crisis, South-Eastern Europe has to remain at the top of the European agenda."

Subscribe to our newsletters