Missing out on Europe

The Croatian prime minister’s resignation is a symptom of fading hopes for EU membership in the western Balkans.

By Ian Bancroft

The surprise resignation of the Croatian prime minister, Ivo Sanader, which derived in part from the stalling of Croatia’s bid to join the EU, provides a telling insight into the predicaments facing governments throughout the region as their own EU membership aspirations dwindle. With “good neighbourly relations” jeopardised on several other fronts, particularly due to the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo and the ongoing name dispute between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the stunted prospects for European integration are beginning to have a profound impact upon domestic politics throughout the western Balkans.

Croatia was widely recognised as likely to become the 28th EU member state, and joined Nato in April this year. But the breakdown of EU-mediated negotiations over an 18-year-old border dispute with Slovenia, eager to secure a corridor across Piran Bay that would provide free access to international shipping waters, led the EU to cancel the next round of accession negotiations. Sweden, which has just taken over the presidency of the EU from the Czech Republic, reiterated its support for the stance that “the border dispute remains a bilateral issue that only Slovenia and Croatia can resolve”, with Sweden’s foreign minister, Carl Bildt, calling for “a period of reflection in both countries”.

With no new chapters of the acquis communautaire to be formally opened or closed, Croatia’s membership ambitions remain indefinitely postponed; a factor that Sanader alluded to in his hastily arranged resignation speech when asserting that “the EU … and the project of European integration have no chance if the principle of blackmailing is accepted as a principle of acting within the EU”. As the conclusions of the Czech presidency reaffirm, there is deep regret about the fact that “negotiations have not progressed” and that the “lack of formal progress in the negotiations with Croatia … does not match the actual progress achieved on the ground by Croatia”. Although Sanader maintains that “my job is done, my political life ends now”, and that he would not run for the presidency as previously expected, the failure to resolve the territorial dispute with Slovenia has ultimately prevented the fulfilment of his political ambitions – membership of the EU.

Sanader’s resignation was preceded a day earlier by that of Ivica Bocevski, Macedonia’s deputy prime minister and the man responsible for the country’s integration into the EU. In a manner akin to Sanader, Bocevski insisted that “my contribution to the current government is fully exhausted”. Though granted EU candidate status in 2005, Macedonia’s own Euro-Atlantic ambitions have been stifled in part by an ongoing name dispute with neighbours Greece, who vetoed the former’s bid to join Nato. With few signs of a settlement on the horizon, coinciding with insufficient progress on key EU-stipulated reforms and subsequent negative evaluation reports from Brussels, accession talks remain remote.

The prospect of European integration has had a defining impact on politics throughout the western Balkans, with politicians and parties alike securing electoral support and the necessary political capital for often contentious reforms in return for demonstrable progress towards membership of the EU. As this perspective becomes increasingly mired in uncertainties deriving from the global financial crisis, delays in ratifying the Lisbon treaty and a rise in enlargement-scepticism, however, political platforms premised primarily on securing the benefits of EU accession are likely to find themselves ever more strained.

With similar recognition-related disputes – over names (between the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Greece), status (with respect to Kosovo) and constitutional reform (in Bosnia and Herzegovina) – certain to prove more intractable then the ongoing disagreement between Slovenia and Croatia, the circumstances of Sanader’s departure are likely to become a common feature of politics in the western Balkans; prolonging the region’s pursuit of EU accession and acceptance.

This article first appeared on The Guardian’s Comment is Free (CiF) section on Tuesday 14 July.

Email