A wider EU: What next

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

“The European Commission’s publication of its reports on EU enlargement last week calls for a balance sheet of the past five years,” writes Rosa Balfour in an October commentary for the European Policy Centre.

Rosa Balfour is senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre.

“‘Enlargement fatigue’ resulting from the expansion from 15 to 27 members, the prolonged impasse of the EU’s constitutional and institutional development, and the economic slump have all made the job of [Enlargement] Commissioner Olli Rehn difficult. 

But the EU continues to be attractive: today nine European states are actual or potential candidates for EU membership, and other countries also aspire to join. This queue at the door is proof of the continuing magnetism of the European method of integration – Iceland being the latest example. The outgoing Commission has also managed to keep the momentum and rigour of the process, in parallel with efforts to persuade member states of the importance of the project as a whole. 

Enlargement is still described as the EU’s most successful foreign policy, but what of its record in managing some of the challenges in South-East Europe? A catalogue of bilateral disputes and unresolved statehood problems has kept the region on the brink of instability during the past decade, putting the EU’s conflict prevention and resolution abilities to the test. 

In 2009 the most pressing bilateral disputes have been Croatia-Slovenia over the maritime border, Serbia-Kosovo over the latter’s bid for independence, Macedonia-Greece over the name, and the divided island of Cyprus. But the redrawing of maps in the region is not about to become history: further border and statehood problems could still emerge. 

Parallel tracks 

For the first time, the Commission has included a paragraph on bilateral disputes in its Strategy Paper, a sign of recognition of the importance of these problems. Enlargement was supposed to be about preventing conflicts rather than importing them, especially given that the EU is a lame duck once a party involved in a dispute is one of its members, so it is very unlikely the EU will accept another Cyprus into its fold. In addition, a subtext of ‘enlargement fatigue’ and the institutional impasse relates to a preoccupation over the kind of member states that the candidates will become. 

Reading between the lines, the outgoing Commission is suggesting separating – at least for the time being – the accession path from the talks on the disputes. This solution has enabled Croatia to enjoy a breakthrough. The dispute over maritime frontiers with Slovenia blocked accession negotiations for a whole year. The recent agreement on resorting to international arbitration to settle this bilateral issue allows Croatia to return to its ambitious roadmap, making it again closer to accession than any of its neighbours. 

The country internationally known as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – and known in Skopje (and in other countries) by its constitutional name Republic of Macedonia – has finally received a positive opinion from the outgoing Commission to start negotiations for EU membership. 

Macedonia was accepted as a candidate in 2005, but has since been in a limbo. This has done much to fuel nationalist politics, worsen inter-ethnic relations within the country, and has contributed to provocative initiatives that have soured relations with Athens. To put it simply, making accession hostage to a bilateral dispute has helped neither side, increased Macedonia’s precariousness and undermined the EU’s credibility. 

The time has come to separate the two issues. Starting negotiations would force the political elites in Skopje to focus on the reforms needed to modernise the country regardless of the state of relations with Athens. These could be conducted in parallel to negotiating a compromise on the name. 

If the new socialist government in Athens wants to demonstrate it can be a constructive actor in the Balkans, it should not block upgrading Macedonia’s relations with the EU. Starting negotiations is not a promise of membership, nor would it pre-judge the outcome of a solution on the name. 

With regard to Serbia, the Commission recommends that the EU brings the Interim Agreement with Serbia into force, implicitly accepting Belgrade’s degree of cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). In 2008 the ICTY too had issued a far more favourable report on Serbia’s cooperation with the tribunal in The Hague even if Ratko Mladi? and Goran Hadži? are still at large. The Commission puts the ball in the court of the EU’s member states, de facto recommending the Netherlands lift its objections to ratifying the Interim Agreement and interprets more flexibly the ‘full cooperation with ICTY’ condition, a position that some EU member states have also been arguing. 

Compared to Central Europe in the 1990s, EU conditionality is much weaker in South-East Europe. Different histories make the idealist drive behind EU integration far less meaningful in the Balkans, and the motivations for joining the Union are more diverse and less capable of creating political consensus. In some countries political elites have been unwilling or incapable of gearing domestic political dynamics to the accession process, often more interested in playing into internal divisive politics and nationalist recriminations with their neighbours than in following the cue of Brussels. 

This helps explain why Bosnia and Herzegovina has been moving from crisis to crisis. Here, the Commission’s strategies that are supposed to lead to EU accession have proved to have little leverage on the inflammable and divisive politics of the country. The EU wants to accelerate the ‘exit strategy’ from the protectorate established there in 1995 and set the very tight deadline of today, 20 October, for the three entities that compose the country to settle their differences, reach a compromise on constitutional changes, and prepare the ground for a transition from the internationally-led Office of the High Representative to the EU-led Special Representative. 

In Kosovo, the EULEX mission is struggling to convince the Kosovo Albanian leaders of the need to normalise relations with Serbia notwithstanding the final outcome of its independent statehood. The Commission appeals to Serbia too to develop a more constructive attitude. 

The bigger picture 

These disputes should not distract from the bigger picture. According to the Commission’s Reports, most of the countries are making progress. Montenegro and Albania have tabled their applications to join the EU and made many steps in the right direction. Serbia too is praised for its reform plans. Kosovo is offered incentives in the fields of visa liberalisation and trade. The enlargement process is still on track, even if it is not a “high-speed train”, to use the words of Commissioner Olli Rehn. 

Among the areas highlighted by the Commission on which most countries need to concentrate their efforts are cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, reforming the judiciary and the fight against organised crime. There will be no discounts or short cuts in these fields: the lesson of the 2007 enlargement is that the process has to be rigorous if it is to be successful overall. 

Political developments remain important. The strengthening of democratic institutions and political rights is part of the Copenhagen criteria required for accession, and many gaps are still evident. Freedom House, for instance, still considers Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Macedonia as only “partly free”, while Kosovo as “not free”. It will be important to make sure that the ‘best performers’ continue to keep the momentum of transformation, in the hope that they might pull the less dynamic countries. 

In many ways, in fact, the process of accession and pre-accession is as important as the outcomes. Keeping the promises made by the EU and persisting with the reforms needed by the candidates to join the EU should remain a key objective of the next Commission. This will contribute to maintaining stability in the Balkans. 

Iceland’s accession process will be less problematic, for as a member of the European Economic Area it already fulfils the main conditions, but its government needs to ensure its citizens’ support for the final referendum on membership. 

Keeping the promises also means overcoming (or at least putting on the back burner) some member states’ reservations on further enlargement. The ambiguities that have haunted this issue have been detrimental to the process as a whole and reduced the EU’s capacity to exercise its transformative power. This is all the more important in the long run if the EU wants to become wider as well as stronger.

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