Taking a break from the German elections, I ran across this recent article over at Radio Free Europe. Short version: EU accession for the Western Balkans (Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia and Albania) is stalling.
All of these five states would like to be part of the EU, but — with the partial exception of Croatia — none of them are particularly welcome. The EU appears to be going through a period of “accession fatigue” in general. The “No” votes in France and the Netherlands, though not directed specifically at these countries, have definitely created an atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty.
Furthermore, many of the countries of the Western Balkans are — there’s no way to be polite about this — unpopular. A recent Eurobarometer poll shows that more people oppose membership for Bosnia (43%) than support it. Only 40% of Europeans support EU membership for Serbia, while 44% oppose it. And for Albania, those numbers are a depressing 36% for, 50% against.
Obviously this could change over time. Again with the exception of Croatia, all of these countries are at least a decade away from membership. So opinions might shift. Still, the poll numbers suggest that there’s not much popular support within the EU for even starting the process.
Looking at the potential members one by one, below the flip.
Croatia is by far the richest country in the Western Balkans. It’s also the most advanced along the road to EU accession. Croatia has a “Stabilization and Association Pact” with the EU, which means that it’s satisfied a long list of benchmarks and is ready to begin negotiations for full accession. Those negotiations were scheduled to begin in March of this year.
Unfortunately for Croatia, the EU Commission insisted that Croatia first turn over indicted war criminal Ante Gotovina to the Hague Tribunal. (Gotovina was a general in the Croatian army. He’s wanted for crimes against Croatia’s Serbian minority, including mass murder and ethnic cleansing.) The Croats have protested that they don’t know where Gotovina is. The EU Commission has refused to accept this. So accession talks have been delayed for over six months now.
If accession talks begin soon, Croatia could plausibly join around 2010 or 2011. The Croats claim that they can satisfy all the requirements (closing all 36 chapters of the acquis communautaire) within three years. This is unlikely. Economic and (especially) legal reforms in Croatia have stalled in the last few years, and the country would probably need at least 5 years to close the acquis.
It’s interesting to note that support for EU accession in Croatia itself has nosedived in the last year, falling from around 60% to about 35%. This seems to be a bad case of sour grapes. Croatian nationalists resent the Gotovina thing, while Croatians in general dislike being made to stand in line behind “primitive” countries like Bulgaria and Romania. It’s anyone’s guess what will happen once the negotiations begin. Nobody’s turned down EU membership yet, though, and I’d be very surprised if Croatia were the first.
Macedonia has an SAA pact since 2002. Despite a marked lack of enthusiasm on the part of the EU, Macedonia took the next logical step and applied for EU membership in 2004.
Now, nobody seriously thinks that small, poor, backwards Macedonia is anywhere near ready to begin accession talks. (It’s generally agreed that the SAA was a reward to the Macedonians for signing the Lake Ochrid Agreement.) But their application is on the table now, and must be acknowledged somehow. The EU Commission is supposed to “offer a recommendation” on the Macedonian candidacy in November 2005.
Serbia is expected to get its SAA pact sometime in 2006. The good news is that Serbia has unexpectedly emerged as the good student of the region. They’ve been handing over their war criminals, bit by bit, and the World Bank recently gave them a major stroke by designating them “most improved” in terms of business-friendly legal and regulatory reforms. (That’s in the world, not just in Europe.)
Unfortunately, Serbia is still much too poor, backwards, corrupt and politically retrograde to be an EU candidate any time soon. Worse yet, its future is confused by the fact that within a year or two, it may have split into three countries — Serbia, Kosovo and Montenegro. The Kosovo issue in particular is likely to severely complicate Serbia’s near and medium-term future. And, of course, independent Montenegro and Kosovo would have to begin their own SAA negotiations and chart their own (long, tortuous) roads to accession.
Bosnia has no SAA, nor any prospects of getting one soon. They’re a long way away from candidacy and, at the moment, they’re not getting any closer. They haven’t even started their SAA talks. That means they’ll probably be the last country in the region to get an SAA pact, which in turn means they’re likely to fall behind in the eventual accession process.
Finally, Albania was supposed to get its SAA this year, but that’s now been put off until next year. Six months ago, Albanian newspapers were confidently predicting that the country would join in 2014. That now looks optimistic.
– It’s funny. Just two and a half years ago, at the Thessaloniki Summit in June ’03, the EU was all sunshine towards the Western Balkans. “Thessaloniki will send two important messages to the Western Balkans,” said Chris Patten. “The prospect of membership of the EU is real, and we will not regard the map of the Union as complete until you have joined us… How far you proceed along the road towards European Integration, and how fast, will be up to you.”
This no longer seems to be the case. The visible disillusionment with expansion, the failure of the Constitutional process, the EU’s faltering political will… these things are now too obvious to ignore.
And they’re having effects. As the RFE article notes, the leadership of the Serb statelet in Bosnia was emboldened to reject an EU-backed plan for police reform, in part because the EU offer of membership had lost credibility. “We’ll never get in the EU, why should we care?” — this is likely to be heard more and more around the region.
In a worst-case scenario, we could see a vicious circle developing: because the EU can’t plausibly offer membership, reform falters; because reform falters, the Western Balkans remain backwards, poor, and corrupt, making the EU ever less interested in bringing them in.
I should add that I think this is unlikely. This is one area where bureacratic momentum and the insulation of EU elites from popular opinion can be good things. The accession process has certainly been slowed, but it doesn’t seem to have been stalled… yet. Most of the region’s governments are eager to push forward, and the EU Commission is (so far) still willing to lead them on.
Key metrics to watch over the next few months:
– The Gotovina case. There’s a bloc within the EU — Germany, Austria, Hungary and a few others — that would like to start talks with Croatia even if they can’t produce Gotovina. This also has a lot of support, I’m sorry to say, in the European Parliament.
If accession talks start next year without Gotovina, then it’ll send a mixed but powerful signal across the region.
– The EU Commission’s response to the Macedonian application, due out in November.
– Whether the Romanian and Bulgarian accessions go off on time (January 1, 2007), or are delayed. The accession treaties for those countries have a clause that states their accession can be delayed by a year, if they aren’t living up to the promises they made when they closed the acquis. A strong signal on this should come next month, when both Romania and Bulgaria get their annual “report cards” on their accession efforts; an even more clear statement should come by next April, when the EU really must decide one way or the other.
Delay would arguably be a good thing, as it would show the EU to be serious about holding candidates to high standards. But in the short run, it would certainly be another blow to the hopes of those countries’ neighbors in the Western Balkans.