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EU Focus: Should Macedonia's Accession Bid be Postponed?

Imminent membership application risks weakening the Macedonia’s reformers and destabilising its fragile democracy.

Last month, as news broke of the tragic death of Macedonia’s president Boris Trajkovski in a plane crash, the country’s prime minister Branko Crvenkovski was en route to Dublin, ready to submit to the Irish presidency Macedonia’s European Union membership application.

The death of Mr Trajkovski might have temporarily postponed the submission, but it hasn’t dampened the determination of the country’s political elites to launch their EU membership bid before the end of the Irish presidency (possibly straight after the April Presidential election).

This is not without serious risks. Macedonia, like all other countries in the western Balkans, needs to have their prospect of EU membership open both as a means of pursuing difficult domestic reforms and consolidating regional stability and good neighbourliness.

The EU card, however, needs to be played well. It is important that the application is launched at a time when the Macedonian government could be reasonably certain that the EU will respond positively. Risk asking the question too early and a disappointing EU reply could have counter-productive effects; weakening the country’s reformers and destabilising its fragile democracy.

Is this the right time for Macedonia to apply? Few would disagree that it is in better shape than most other western Balkan countries to begin accession negotiations. Certainly, it has gone further than many have expected to reform domestic institutions and meet the demands of the Ohrid Framework Agreement.

Over the last decade, Macedonia has also been a “good citizen” in the Balkans and a reliable partner to the EU, often under conditions of extreme provocation and adversity. The key to the success of the Macedonian application (and its eventual EU membership), however, lies elsewhere. The devil is not in the detail, but in the “wider picture”.

At the moment, eight countries from the wider Balkan region have been recognised by the EU as potential members. Bulgaria and Romania are already well advanced in their accession negotiations with the EU. Turkey submitted its membership application in the early 1990s, but a starting date for its accession negotiations has not yet been set (a decision on this is due on December 2004).

Croatia submitted its application in 2003 and Macedonia will do so in the near future. Albania and Bosnia are also likely to follow soon. In Serbia-Montenegro, the situation is more complex, but there too the prospect of integration into the EU structures would be almost impossible to resist long term.

Against this background, the timing of the EU’s incorporation of Balkan states is of paramount importance. Will the EU go for a “drip-drip” strategy, drawing in one Balkan country at a time based on individual performance, or will it prefer a “big bang” enlargement where most of the region’s candidates will become members of the union as a block?

In the case of the 2004 enlargement, the EU eventually adopted something close to the latter strategy, allowing 10 east and south European candidates to join simultaneously, whilst separating Bulgaria and Romania into a slower lane.

A number of factors have contributed to this. The fragmentation of the accession candidates into many small groups would have faced almost impossible political complications. In addition, a “drip-drip” strategy would almost certainly have produced prolonged institutional confusion and difficulties over the calculation of the EU’s budget.

Arguably, many of the factors that shaped the EU’s “big bang” strategy for the 2004 enlargement are all the more relevant in the case of the Balkans. Here, the potential exclusion of some candidates from fast-track accession negotiations with the EU are likely to inflame passions and, almost inevitably, lead to accusations of favouritism and divisiveness.

In addition, over the next few years, the EU is likely to be preoccupied with the smooth absorption of its new members states as well as with difficult negotiations over the new constitutional treaty and its budget for 2006-13. Under these circumstances, it is unlikely that there will be much appetite for a prolonged and disruptive “drip-drip” Balkan enlargement.

A “big bang” enlargement strategy for the Balkans may also difficult. The prospect of Bulgaria and Romania’s EU membership by 2007 seems almost certain. For Turkey, the prospect of EU membership remains distant, even if a date for the start of accession negotiations is agreed this December. This leaves a three-stage Balkan enlargement as the most likely scenario, with Bulgaria and Romania joining in 2007, the western Balkans en block by 2015 and Turkey by 2020.

How does this timeframe square with the Macedonian EU membership application this spring? Some may argue that an early membership bid will send a clear message to the international community that Macedonia is firmly committed to the path of economic and political reform.

Others may argue that a tame EU response to the Macedonian application may leave the government trying hard to explain this to its population rather than concentrating on domestic reform.

Either way the Macedonian government may have good reasons to complain that its European aspirations are being frustrated by wider regional considerations that are beyond its control, for instance political instability in Serbia and Kosovo.

This may well be true, but the Macedonians should also take heart from the fact that a coordinated accession strategy for the western Balkans may provide the EU with greater leverage to deal with some of the region’s thorniest issues, including cross-border crime and the final status of Kosovo.

The resolution of these problems cannot and should not be seen in isolation from Macedonia’s ultimate goal of joining the union. They are, instead, the only long-term guarantees that both country and region enjoy a stable and prosperous future as part of an enlarged Europe.

Dimitris Papadimitriou is a lecturer in European Politics at the Department of Government, University of Manchester & honorary fellow at the Hellenic Observatory/European Institute, London School of Economics.

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