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Comment: Balkans' EU Hopes Dented

The demise of the union’s constitutional treaty may have dealt Balkan countries’ membership aspirations a severe blow.
By Gerald Knaus

How serious a setback for the Western Balkans is the failure of the ratification process of the European Union constitutional treaty? At this stage, nobody can say for sure, but the next few months will provide a clear answer.

The ongoing European debate on the future of enlargement in the wake of the Dutch and French votes is ominous. Commentators and politicians, particularly in France and Germany, interpret the referenda as a call for a freeze on further progress towards EU membership.

German Christian Democrats, far ahead in the polls for elections this autumn, call for a moratorium on further enlargement. This could slow down the progress of Bulgaria and Romania. It could derail the beginning of accession talks with Turkey. But it is in the Western Balkans that the practical consequences risk being most serious.

After all, it remains likely that Romania and Bulgaria, whose accession treaties have already been signed, will join the EU soon, and that negotiations with Turkey will begin as planned in October. But there are no such certainties in the Western Balkans, where a number of key decisions remain to be taken.

There are three policy areas in particular: progress in Macedonia’s membership application, the future of EU financial assistance to the Balkans, and the future of the Stabilisation and Association Process, SAP.

Macedonia is today the pivotal state in terms of EU integration. Until a few months ago, there was a consensus among EU policy makers that its membership application was going well.

The European Commission was expected to deliver a positive report in the autumn, followed by a decision at the EU council in December to give Macedonia candidate status. This could have led to the beginning of membership talks before the end of 2006 or in early 2007.

Now, however, some EU member states have second thoughts and seek to slow down this process. Objectively, this would be difficult to explain: after all, Macedonia has largely implemenbted the Ohrid Agreement and meets the Copenhagen political and human rights criteria (the hurdle for gaining candidate status) at least as much as Central European countries in 1997 or Turkey in 1999, when they became candidates.

Such a strategy looks risky, given the importance of internal stability and the investment the EU has already made in Macedonia, and given the risks that emerge as the United States and EU seek to settle Kosovo’s status. A serious setback would send a very negative signal to the region as a whole.

The second test of European seriousness will be revealed by ongoing debates on the future of EU financial assistance for 2007-2013. This has been extensively discussed by the European Stability Initiative elsewhere (Breaking Out Of The Balkan Ghetto – Why IPA Should Be Changed ). Present proposals by the EC do not amount to serious pre-enlargement support. It is possible that EU member states might agree on an even less favourable package than that proposed by the Commission.

The third litmus test is the future of the SAP. Will this process be more than a devise to delay progress by imposing an ever demanding set of conditions without precedent to prevent countries from submitting membership applications?

Three countries are still in the queue: Albania, Bosnia and Hercegovina and Serbia and Montenegro. Albania has been negotiating its agreement since early 2003. Much will depend on the conduct of upcoming Albanians elections. Sarajevo and Belgrade have yet to start talks.

In the case of Serbia and Montenegro the remaining obstacle (the arrest of former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic) is clear. What is less clear is whether the EU would actually respond to such an arrest with negotiations that could lead to an agreement before the end of 2006. In the case of Macedonia, a Stabilisation and Association Agreement, SAA, was signed on the eve of serious ethnic conflict. In that of Bulgaria and Romania, SAAs were signed very soon after the fall of communism. Would negotiatons with Serbia and Montenegro be made more difficult?

The biggest challenge for the SAP remains Bosnia. Miscalculations by the international community, led by Office of the High Representative, have led it into a cul de sac. Demanding a radical police reform as a condition for even beginning talks on an SAA has backfired.

It was, in fact, never likely that any government in Republika Srpska, RS, would approve the dismantling of its interior ministry, which is constitutionally guaranteed. Arguments that this was necessary to meet “EU standards of policing” were always vague, as Bosnia is a federal state, and as all federal states in the EU have police forces at lower levels.

RS politicians were aware that the EU inspired the creation of the state union of Serbia and Montenegro, which has no police functions at state level, supposedly to help accelerate progress towards the EU. Now, however, despite other progress, Bosnia has become a hostage. Ten years after Dayton it will not be a member of Partnership for Peace, it will not have an SAA and it will still be governed by an international office with unlimited powers, while the prospect for EU integration recedes.

Macedonia’s application and the future of the SAP for Albania, Serbia and Montenegro and Bosnia will be the true tests of the EU’s continued commitment to the Western Balkans. Have voters in France and the Netherlands brought down not only a constitutional treaty but also the basis for current EU policy towards the Balkans?

Gerald Knaus is the president of the European Stability Initiative.