Western Balkans – the situation is gloomier than it may seem

While the EU is closing the final chapters of the accession negotiations with Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro are keenly eyeing the prospect of becoming member candidates. However, can the EU integrate the whole region, including Kosovo and Bosnia?

By Bea Huszka

2010 was a good year for the Western Balkans. The passing of the Lisbon Treaty in December 2009 helped the EU return to a more pro-enlargement mood. In its most recent progress report, the European Commission recommended granting Montenegro candidate status, while Serbia’s application for membership was sent by the Council for an opinion to the Commission. In June 2010, the EU finally approved launching the ratification process of Serbia’s Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), the implementation of which had been put on hold since its inception in 2007, owing to Serbia’s unsatisfactory cooperation with the Hague Tribunal. From December 2010, Bosnian and Albanian citizens gained the privilege to enjoy visa-free travel to the EU, similarly to their Serbian, Montenegrin and Macedonian counterparts who gained this right one year earlier.

Now Serbia and Montenegro are eyeing the prospect of becoming a candidate, which would mean not only getting a step closer to EU membership, but also a significant increase in assistance funds to implement institutional reforms. The fact that the Hungarian presidency’s Balkan agenda turned out to be quite unexciting might also be a good sign indicating that things are mostly on-track. Due to changes introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, the EU’s High Representative and Catherine Ashton’s team will deal with foreign and security policy issues – namely, the tricky questions of “stateness” in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Kosovo – meaning the presidency is left with the task of managing the enlargement process. This at the moment means carrying out organizational and administrative tasks in “business as usual” mode.

Serbia negotiating its membership is likely to have wider stabilizing effects reaching beyond its borders. It might motivate Bosnia to work harder to become a candidate. A Serbia keen on joining the EU might serve as the best incentive for Bosnia’s so far failed institutional reforms, which might also discourage separatist aspirations in the Republika Srpska.

Improving relations between Serbia and the EU and the ever closer prospect of reaching candidate status might also help to normalize relations with neighboring Kosovo. While recognizing Kosovo’s independence is not expected of Serbia, having stable borders and peaceful relations with neighbors is a requirement. Negotiations over technical issues have just started between the two governments, which deal with practical problems directly affecting citizens.

Though Serbia and Kosovo are now sitting down at the negotiating table, a breakthrough in bilateral relations can hardly be expected. Kosovo’s government looks weaker than ever as its reputation has been wrecked by corruption charges and ugly allegations about involvement in organ trafficking. Next spring Serbia will hold elections, meaning that its leadership will be unlikely to consider difficult compromises. The Kosovo side, in general, is skeptical about the dialogue and views it as “a way for Serbia to keep its foot in the door,”; i.e. as another opportunity for putting the status issue back on the agenda.

Serbia’s relations with Kosovo might pose a serious obstacle in the final phase when Serbia will be on the brink of entering the EU. For the time being, the EU does not have an idea as to what to do with Kosovo, as five EU member states stubbornly refuse to accept its independence. Although the EU is deeply-engaged in Kosovo’s stabilization, primarily through its rule of law mission (EULEX), it does not have a vision about how to include Kosovo into the enlargement process.

While Bosnia has an EU perspective – just like any other state in the region – the EU’s lack of a clear strategy towards the country means that many doubt it could ever become a member. Such skeptics reckon that some sort of special status or privileged partnership might be more realistic in the long run.

In addition, social tensions can be expected to grow in the region due to the recent economic crisis. Although economic growth has picked up – reaching 2–4% this year – it is unlikely to increase employment in the near future. Deeply indebted governments must repay their loans. Economic woes were clearly a factor fuelling recent protests in Serbia and Croatia, feeding anger against the incumbent governments.

In Croatia, where accession has to be affirmed through a public referendum, popular support for EU membership has been nearing record lows (39% in January 2011), which might be exacerbated by the current economic crisis. Closing the last negotiation chapters under the Hungarian Presidency requires Croatia to implement painful reforms, including privatizing or liquidating its unprofitable shipyards. Thousands of jobs could be lost, making EU membership even more unpopular.

Despite the recent positive trends, the entire region – except the already almost-member Croatia – could go either way: it could integrate into the EU in the current decade or so, or drift away from it and become a zone of various insecurities in the EU’s own backyard.

Bea Huszka is a Balkans expert and an associate professor at ELTE University, Budapest. This article originally appeared in the Budapest Business Journal and is available by clicking here.

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0 Response

  1. I agree that the EU seems to have no idea of what to do about Kosovo, including what the desired outcome of the current talks should be within the constraints imposed by the two parties, both of whom refuse to accept the sovereignty of the other over the territory. But the problem is not entirely with Brussels. The US has been protecting Pristina from having to consider any compromise, such as autonomy for the north within Kosovo. Unless Washington comes to accept the need for such compromise, the EU facilitated talks will eventually run aground on the issue of the north and perhaps even on the “technical” issues such as electricity, telecoms and customs stamps. Conflict over the north provoked by an effort to change the status quo on the ground — a course of action the US seemingly remains committed to — runs the risk not just of insecurity but outright violence and rupture. This could have far-reaching consequences.

  2. George Vaughan

    The EU probably takes the view that an independent Kosovo is in its infancy and, given time, regional stability, as well as relations between Serbia and Kosovo – even if primarily concerned with practicalities at the moment – will improve sufficiently for more influence to be exerted closer to Serbia’s EU accession, (which is likely to be some way down the road yet). “Things will improve with time” has not been a particularly successful policy in BiH, however.
    Encouraging Serbia’s goal of EU membership is a sound idea in terms of the region as a whole, but it comes at the cost of a feeling of neglect from sections of the BiH population. While this may not be entirely fair, it is understandable and the EU does not appear to have done (or be doing) enough to counter this perception.
    The writer is correct to say that Serbia’s prospective EU membership “might …. discourage separatist aspirations in the Republika Srpska”. Unfortunately, ‘might’ is the significant word. While the closer accession becomes, the more untenable does RS separatism, there is a lot of water to flow under the bridge on the Drina in the meanwhile. One might have hoped that the rhetoric of last year’s election campaign would have died down by now, but it has not done so sufficiently for one to be optimistic about BiH’s progress as a more unified entity. The word is ‘might’ because nobody has a very clear idea where this all leads.
    In this respect, both the EU and US are likely to be cautious about autonomy (or the degree thereof) for northern Kosovo. The creation of RS is not the best of precedents and, since the Serbian population of Kosovo is not confined to one area, what does one do with the likes of Gračanica or Brezovica? These are rather early days as far as Kosovo is concerned and anything that could possibly create further instability is not going to be welcomed in Europe.
    My impression is that there are many people in the former Yugoslavia – and this is not confined to the older generation – who regard the boundaries resulting from the country’s break-up as a nuisance at best. But an EU with open borders is a hard idea to sell, especially to those who may regard membership as never likely to happen. Perhaps the Northern Ireland situation is instructive. You can pass freely from the Irish Republic into Northern Ireland, only becoming aware that you have done so by a change in the road markings and signs to say the speed limits are now in mph rather than kph. Thus you have a sort of unity by the back door and, to a great extent, you can regard the island of Ireland as one country or two, depending on your point of view. But how long did this take to achieve?

  3. Milenko Marković

    The article is generally fair and balanced, but it treats current situation which is burdened by EU/US dogmatic policy towards Western Balkans. There are two dogmas: 1. Bosnia must be one country and 2. Kosovo must be independent.

    Bosnia is obviously not sustainable with RS as an integral part, and Kosovo’s “independence” is in dead end, even after positive ruling of ICJ. Perhaps some trade could be done in a very long run: Independent RS combined with division of Kosovo?

    However, there is no will in State Department to abandon current policy which for years has proven to be completely fruitless…

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