EU integration pitfalls in the Western Balkans

Should stalemate in the European integration process not be properly managed both now and in the future, the EU risks a serious loss of credibility – both as a mediator and as “an anchor for change”.

By Massimiliano Gobbato

A series of events from June onwards provides strong evidence that EU-Serbia relations are approaching a turning point. Serbia’s apprehension of Mladic and Hadžić, the commencement of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue and the positive opinion of the Commission on EU candidacy represent valuable evolutions. For Serbia, it has improved its European and international standing, boosting its chances of obtaining EU membership. For the EU, it has strengthened its stabilizing role in the Western Balkans.

Though overshadowed by so-called ‘enlargement fatigue’ and, more importantly, by the current Euro debt crisis, the Western Balkans have gone through some valuable changes during the past two years, bringing about a new wave of EU rapprochement. The ICJ’s ruling on Kosovo, the fulfilment of Serbia’s ICTY obligations and the European Council’s green light for Croatia membership, along with Montenegro’s EU candidacy, are clear signs of a propelling force emerging from the region.

However, some persistent unsettled issues and a certain amount of diplomatic indecision are hindering – if not putting at risk entirely – sustainable solutions. Above all, it seems that some of the key actors inside and outside the region are realising that there is much at stake, and that they lack a clearly defined strategy for dealing with the ever-changing situation.

In order to better understand this last point, it is useful to consider the two-fold approach towards the region’s stability and integration. On the one hand, the EU is called upon by the duty of historical legacy and interests to be a reliable, stabilizing factor for the region. On the other, the remaining former-Yugoslav states have to take steps to catch-up with the rest of the transition countries which have already joined, or are inclined to join, the EU.

As frequently highlighted by several observers, the cornerstone of this process is represented by EU-Serbia relations. Aside from historical factors, the inter-relationship between the situation in Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina and other parts of the Balkans demands a once-and-for-all stabilisation of relations between Belgrade, Pristina and the EU.

Though one could claim that the EU integration process has so far been fairly successful, various controversies remain which will require additional common efforts to reach an acceptable equilibrium. Should this stalemate not be properly managed, however, the EU risks a serious loss of credibility – both as a mediator and, to use EU jargon, as “an anchor for change”.

As far as Belgrade-Pristina relations are concerned, the policy which has viewed Serbia’s and Kosovo integration as parallel processes is no longer applicable in the light of the recent events. The EU’s strategy has shaped its approach within two similar-but-distinct frameworks; deferring the point at which these two processes would inevitably clash.

On the one hand, the EU has encouraged Serbia’s integration progress as with any other potential candidate, whilst on the other, it has engaged Kosovo trough the Stabilisation Track Mechanism, specifically tailor-made for Pristina. This had the dual aim of continuing the enlargement process and delaying the moment at which ‘enlargement fatigue’, disagreement between member states and a predictable deterioration of the situation in northern Kosovo would have left the Union facing a dilemma.

If, to date, the EU has been successful in circumventing inter-relations between the two parties by acting as a neutral actor, the EU is increasingly being forced to reach a common position – or, at least, a coherent integration strategy – despite internal disagreements amongst both member states and its driving institutions.

Though Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, took a firm stance during her last visit to Belgrade, Martin Schulz – leader of the Socialists in the European Parliament and a candidate to become president of the European Parliament – downplayed this hard-line attitude on Kosovo. Indeed, Enlargement Commissioner, Stefan Fule, recently stated in a high-level conference in Brussels that, “Croatia transformed itself because of the reforms undertaken, reforms made possible because Enlargement policy was credible. For Member States, credibility means applying rigourous conditionality towards the applicants, but also providing them with a tangible European perspective as they fulfil the relevant conditions”. Given Serbia’s progress on the reform front, the Kosovo issue could undermine the EU’s credibility.

At this point in time, the EU will have to contend with the asymmetries both within itself and the Western Balkans for two reasons. First, Serbia’s candidacy will be a test of EU diplomatic action effectiveness and credibility; not only in the Western Balkans, but elsewhere. Second, the Kosovo case represents an exception to the ‘untouchability principle’ of former Yugoslav borders, which can be considered an unwritten rule of settling territorial disputes in the Western Balkans.

Consequently, the EU is obliged to face its inconsistencies by finding an agreement on the recognition of Kosovo, or by being prepared to compensate – through diplomacy and charisma – for the fact that the EU is demanding Belgrade to recognize something that the EU itself does not agree upon. Furthermore, it is interesting to note the fact that Serbs in northern Kosovo are requesting the same treatment of Kosovo itself; namely independence under the principle of self-determination.

As EU decision-making processes on foreign and security policy still rest upon the principle of consensus, reaching a common approach and a consistent strategy will be neither straightforward, nor immediate. The recent phenomenon of withdrawal from, and resumption of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, clearly points to some of the challenges faced. The Commission has nonetheless given its approval to Serbia’s candidacy request, though with special conditions attached. Even if the European Council grants Serbia candidate status, the real matter at stake is when and under which approach negotiations will be conducted. This recent pattern of EU-Serbia relations is one of the main reasons for why it is still difficult to predict the EU’s future engagement.

Whilst the EU needs to reset and re-adapt its its integration strategy before making further steps, Serbia itself remains in an uncomfortable position. The country is in arrears – both with respect to reform and foreign direct investment – that inhibit economic development. Even though not hit as severely as other neighbours by the financial crisis, Serbia remains in a steady state; implying that urgent actions are required – for instance, on still-pending privatisations – in order to counter the understandable citizens’ dissatisfaction with low living standards and to avoid any form of ultra-nationalistic revival.

As recently stated by the Economist Intelligence Unit, maintaining fiscal discipline and wage policies to balance the pressure for excessive government spending is the main challenge for policy-makers. These phenomena may lead to social tensions and political frictions that impact on the current EU rapprochement and integration process; undoubtedly one of the main means to improve Serbia’s economic conditions. This virtuous circle of economic reforms and European integration should also help improve citizen’s opinions on EU membership, which are prone to changing. The close relationship between EU integration, economic development and nationalist residuals is, therefore, swiftly fading when compared, for instance, to the case of Croatia.

Though the Serbian ruling elites are aware of this challenge, the political panorama continues to stick to the catch-all position – claiming EU integration as a priority, and Kosovo and Methoija as an integral part of the Republic of Serbia – without sufficiently debating the possible consequences of this stance and its apparent limitations. Though some interesting changes within Serbian nationalists have been observed, particularly their attitudes towards EU integration, and in contrast to Serbia’s progress in areas of the rule of law and democracy, the issue of Kosovo relates to the gloomiest part of the country’s recent history.

This particular pattern continues to hinder the start of EU membership negotiations, due to constant frictions with the Kosovo authorities and the EU, plus the wider repercussions for the region. This current vicious circle threaten the favourable momentum that can help move Serbia, Kosovo and the region down the path of ‘normalisation’, economic growth and political stability. If the EU mismanages this process, then it risks serious losses of credibility; both in the Western Balkans and elsewhere.

Massimiliano Gobbato is a former NGO Volunteer in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia. He holds an MA in European Studies from the College of Europe, where he specialised in EU Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy. Massimiliano published several articles as a freelance writer, and previously worked for the Veneto Delegation to the EU on Croatia’s candidacy and EU-Serbia related issues.

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