European Affairs

Western Balkans Beat Slow, Unsteady Path Toward EU Membership     Print
By Brian Beary, Washington Correspondent for Europolitics

The EU has made more headlines in the American media this year than perhaps at any time in its history.   With markets and governments jittery about the future of the EU single currency, the euro, there has been a flurry of EU summits peppered with seemingly endless talks on bailout terms and treaty changes. And the future of the EU has been in play.

Amidst all the commotion, another cornerstone of the EU – enlargement to the Western Balkans – has slipped under the radar. But this does not mean there has been no important, if subtle, activity.  Here is an update.

Kosovo did hit the pages (back pages) of the news earlier this month by shutting down the International Civilian Office (ICO), which had been assisting its government. While the Kosovar Albanians will say this means they are ready to enter into EU accession talks, the road to Brussels is going to be a long and windy one. For starters, Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in February 2008, does not have full control over its security, relying on a 5,500-strong NATO peacekeeping force and an EU police and rule of law mission. In addition, the government in Pristina does not control a northern enclave of Kosovo that Kosovar Serbs have effectively barricaded off, helped by neighbouring Serbia, which refuses to recognize Kosovo’s independence. Then there is the matter of five EU countries – Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain - not recognizing Kosovo’s secession at all. This makes it difficult for EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle to advance Kosovo’s accession bid, although he is tipped to soon recommend the launch of the first stage of that process, a Stabilization and Association Agreement.

The picture looks better for Kosovo’s EU aspirant neighbours. First off, it should be noted that Slovenia, which seceded from the crumbling Yugoslavia in 1991, has been comfortably ensconced inside the EU since 2004, and has emerged as a Balkan success story.

Slovenia’s neighbour, Croatia, is set to join in July 2013, having signing an Accession Treaty in November 2011, following many years of painstaking negotiations, which included having to resolve a border demarcation dispute with Slovenia. Croats have been rewarded for diligently integrating tens of thousands of pages of EU law into their legal system and for trying to close the darkest chapters of the 1990s Yugoslav wars by handing over indicted war criminals to an international tribunal in The Hague.

Croatia’s easterly neighbour Serbia, the most populous Western Balkan nation with seven million people, has also made some impressive advances of late, largely after it handed over the Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic to the tribunal in The Hague. After years of icy relations with Brussels, in March 2012, Serbia was granted candidate status.

Just three months later, tiny Montenegro, a nation of 600,000, overtook Serbia in the accession race, when EU-Montenegro accession talks were formally opened.  And Serbia may have taken a step back after voters elected the hard-line nationalist Tomislav Nikolic as their new President in May, replacing the more moderate, EU-friendly Boris Tadic. That said, while Tomislav has attracted media attention by his nationalistic rhetoric – for example, refusing to acknowledge the 1995 genocide of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica – the Serb government has been discreetly proceeding with the EU accession negotiations.

As for Serbia’s southerly neighbor, Macedonia, its EU hopes have been stalled due to a bitter dispute with neighbour Greece over the use of the name ‘Macedonia.’ The largest and second most populated region in Greece, Macedonia has particular historic significance for Athens as the birthplace of Alexander the Great. While Macedonia was designated by the EU as a candidate country as far back as 2005, the name dispute has prevented the launch of accession talks because Greece has exercised a power, which all EU countries have, to block the accession process of any EU aspiring nation. One area where the Macedonian government has had more success is in easing tensions with the country’s ethnic Albanian minority who make up 25% of the population. The Albanians of Macedonia now have extensive rights to speak their language in the local administration and education system and the central government has also been increasing the number of Albanians employed in the civil service. To the west, the country of Albania itself has made more modest progress and is so far only a ‘potential candidate’ – the same ranking that Kosovo and Bosnia have.

Turning to Bosnia, the country upon which the world’s gaze was transfixed from 1992 to 1995 due to a horribly brutal war in which thousands of Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims massacred each other all the while ethnically “cleansing” the territory, it remains in a very fragile state. The wounds of war have yet to heal: the country’s unity continues to be threatened by the Bosnian Serb community having effectively separated itself from the rest of their compatriots, while an EU peacekeeping force remains in place. As the country prepares to conduct a census in 2013 – the first since the war – observers fear this process could further accentuate differences between the communities instead of reconciling them.

The Western Balkans, a region of 26 million people, is thus in a dramatically different place today than it was a generation ago. Back in the late 1970s, Yugoslavia’s communist dictator, Josip Broz Tito, was signing co-operation agreements with the EU’s precursor, the European Economic Community. Although Tito kept the country neutral throughout the Cold War, despite it being communist, many were predicting that Yugoslavia would become the first East European country to join the Union. However, following Tito’s death in 1980s, ethnic nationalism surged and the country slowly disintegrated, ultimately splintering into seven countries. This fragmentation has hurt the region not just politically, but economically too. While during the Cold War, Yugoslav living standards were among the highest of the eastern bloc nations, today some of the post-Yugoslav nations have slipped behind the ten ex-communist bloc countries that have joined the EU. Poland, for instance, has a GDP per capita of $14,000 and rising, whereas Serbia’s is under $6,000 and stagnating. For many in the Balkans, EU membership is the solution to their problems – both political and economic. And that is why, even though the EU’s reputation is taking a battering around the world because of the euro crisis, these nations are likely to continue to beat the path to Brussels.

Brian Beary is a freelance Irish journalist based in Washington specializing in EU affairs.   He is the U.S correspondent for the daily newspaper, Europolitics. He recently authored a 10,000-word report entitled “The Troubled Balkans,” published by CQ Press.