The EU and the Balkans - A long engagement or a happy marriage?28 June 2012
“The Balkans need to build good relations with their neighbours, and the Balkans need to come to terms with their past,” said Rosa Balfour, a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre.
“There’s a leadership problem,” said Balfour, citing politicians’ tendency to manipulate the past and turn to nationalistic populism for personal political gain.
“Coming to terms with the past and good relations with neighbours are not part of the EU’s bilateral relations in the accession process. The closer the countries get to EU membership, the less leverage the EU has. The leverage comes before deciding to open membership talks,” Balfour said.
“The last six months have seen a referendum on EU membership in Croatia, elections in Croatia and elections in Serbia. Democracy seems to be functioning and is stable in outward form,” said Tim Judah, Balkans correspondent at The Economist.
But he nevertheless cited the media and the judiciary among elements of modern democracy that were still problematic in the Balkan region.
“Clearly there are deep problems with the media, ranging from EU Balkan countries Romania and Bulgaria to Montenegro. The media often depends on governments and advertising agencies for income, and there are media barons. All this leads to self-censorship,” Judah said.
“But the situation isn’t dire, and there are new developments, like Al-Jazeera Balkans, which broadcasts across the region,” he said.
“Politically, there are several contradictory trajectories. In the past, there was always a country at the crossroads. Now they all know where they’re going – the EU – but they’re plodding along. In fact it’s [the EU itself] is at a crossroads now, rather than the Balkans. Croatia is joining an EU that’s very different from the one it negotiated to join,” Judah argued.
“Europe might have lost its magic, but not its importance. The EU negotiating process is the anchor for the region, as revealed by May’s elections in Serbia. The Balkans is facing serious challenges, but the vast majority of political parties there are in the pro-EU camp,” said Hedvig Morvai-Horvat, executive director of the European Fund for the Balkans.
“Young people in the Balkans are dissatisfied with the present, not optimistic about the future, and believe life would be better in the former Yugoslavia. But that doesn’t mean they’re nostalgic about the past. They’re dissatisfied with the present. EU integration is the only way forward,” Morvai-Horvat said.
“Croatia’s EU membership will benefit all Balkan countries. Croatia doesn’t want to be one big border [with the edge of the EU], so it will work hard for enlargement to other Balkan countries,” said Romana Vlahutin, the President’s Envoy for South-East Europe in the Office of the President of the Republic of Croatia.
“But for as long as there’s a profound preoccupation with identity and statehood, politics will always come before reform and reconciliation,” Vlahutin warned.
“EU membership is an important projection of power for the region. We see the EU as a more of a power than the EU does itself!” she said.
“We need to change the narrative in the Balkans. No-one owes us anything. The Balkans must define and work towards their common interests together. Solidarity must be trained. It’s not just something for others. It’s for you as well,” Vlahutin said.
“Unfortunately, there’s still a bunker mentality in the Balkans. Fight corruption, and face up to the 1990s. Do all this while boosting your economy too. The Western Balkans has serious growth potential. We must reinforce, not waste, that potential,” she concluded.
“The enlargement process has changed since 2004-5. We’ve learned lessons, and the EU has changed in the meantime. You must accept the new constraints. Croatia has already had to do this,” said Stefano Sanino, Director-General for Enlargement at the European Commission.
“Forget the sense that the enlargement process is stuck. Croatia will most likely join in July 2013. We decided on Tuesday to open negotiations with Montenegro. Granting Serbia candidate status in March shows that the process is moving,” Sanino argued.
“We’ve started a structured dialogue with Bosnia and Herzegovina, and agreed a roadmap for the next steps towards the EU. Hopefully it will submit a credible candidacy by the end of the year,” the director-general said.
“Make the EU part of the national agenda, with a national consensus around it, fight corruption and crime as national priorities, and accept that there are no shortcuts. Do all this, and it’s a win-win,” he concluded.