Western Balkans

The ’’bête noire’’ of Europe

EU’s complex relationship with the Balkans

, by Piia Pappinen

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

The ''bête noire'' of Europe

As the leaders of Europe place their stakes on the table at negotiations over the next financial framework, fuss about competitiveness and growth is rivalling the open ended question on the future enlargement to Western Balkans. Meanwhile, the stiff leaders keep their purses firmly aside, refusing to see the ’’bête noire’’ on their very own backyard. Even though Balkans is formally outside EU, forgetting it alone might be truly detrimental.

ACTION slaps Rehn around a bit with a large trout

Recently arranged internet chat hosted by Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn invited young people to discuss the perspectives and challenges of the European paths of the Western Balkan countries. Participants from various SEE countries expressed their sincere eagerness in becoming EU members by flooding the chat with impatient questions. Popular dissent hung in the air as well, and as an expression of the feeling of frustration one participant even took virtual action, accordingly “slapping Mr. Commissioner around with a large trout” and claiming it a regrettable accident.

As questions filled the air - Commissioner ensured, all that is needed was fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria, co-operation with ICTY, and that the applicants we’re assessed solely on their own merits.

Trick or treat?

“Knock- knock”
“Who’s there?” whispers small Bosnia - Herzegovina.
“It’s me, European Union”, answers the mighty EU and continues,” trick or treat? - and it’s all up to you”

Bosnia is struggling with a demand to radically undress her police forces, which is required for beginning talks on an SAA. Republika Srpska firmly rejects the reform and claims its federal right to own police forces at the lowest level. The stipulation has proved to be a political miscalculation, as Bosnia is not making any progress in the talks. Accusations on EU giving false hopes and causing bafflement by posing hurdles too high already in the beginning, and setting up new criteria as the former ones are fulfilled might not be ill-targeted in certain cases.

Political conditionality has been the guiding norm in EU’s relations towards its neighbours. Yet, it is another question whether applying conditionality indeed gives EU the leverage it needs to promote its values in the Balkans. Success in democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal are often used as vivid example of the triumph of EU conditionality, but the influence of internal political processes on their own right can be argued having contributed more to it.

EU should ask itself whether the stringent “conditionality before status” approach chosen towards Western Balkan countries is actually viable. The war-ridden region clearly is not in the same position as the previous incomers, and some positive discrimination should thus be concerned in terms of the financial aid and conditionality applied to their integration paths. According to European Stability Initiative, a Berlin based think-tank; the new Commission proposal on an instrument of Pre-Accession (IPA) implicitly outlines the prospective accession dates for the region to be 2020 in a “realist scenario”, which is far behind the countries’ own expectations. EU should carefully take into consideration whether it is driving Western Balkans’ to a hopeless situation, in which the people lose patience and become euro-sceptic. Macedonia sees itself, with ill-founded optimism or not, as a candidate by the end of this year. Albania began negotiations for an SAA in early 2003, with no results as yet. Much will depend on the stance Commission adopts on the fairness of the recently held elections. The position of S&M including Kosovo, seems to be proceeding, despite the seemingly slow pace. The talks are based on a “twin-track” approach, and all that is needed for the SAA negotiations for S&M to start, is a Council approval on the Commission’s negotiation mandate. Positive signs about Kosovo’s progress regarding SAp we’re given after the 7th meeting of the “Stabilization and Association Process Tracking Mechanism” held in Pristine in last May. Though UN and EU agree that the status quo of Kosovo is not sustainable, Commissioner Rehn underlined the importance of economic reform over the province’s shredded status wrangling between Pristine - Belgrade. According to Rehn, the decision on starting the Kosovo - EU status talks this autumn depending on the UN standards review. Either way, negotiators have a bunch of threads to keep in hand, as Montenegrins also have aspirations other than that of the state union with Serbia.

The dispute over next financial period, CARDS and IPA

The big bang seemingly has introduced an enlargement fatigue among the heads of states. Politicians are not willing to pool their money in such quantities that the common political goal of regional cohesion and mere practical reasoning would outline. This could prove to be costly on the long run - cutting expenses from the wrong paragraph may be fatal. The negotiations on the next financial perspective ended up slashing the proposed level for all of the cohesion policies by 26,4 billion €. According to ESI, the most crucial problem is not the amount of assistance in general, but the timing in allocating the money, which painfully shows in the principles laid down in IPA. The tendency to lower the levels of assistance between 2007 - 2009 seems absurdly irrational as the momentum of the Western Balkan countries has come at grasp, all the critical junctures in the sight during 2006 - 2010. On the contrary, Commission is proposing that the sums channelled to the region at this period of time, should be kept at bay, until the states of the region gain their candidate statuses, expectedly at 2011. In Kosovo, the decline in EU assistance will be particularly steep. IPA assistance is divided into to five subcategories. Assistance which able countries to adopt the tools needed for managing development funds is reserved for recognised candidates. For countries without candidate status, the access is limited to only two budget lines, i.e. assistance along the lines currently laid down in the CARDS- regulation. The draft proposal therefore leaves S & M, including Kosovo, Bosnia and Albania nibbling the leftovers until 2010, according to the realist scenario implicit in the proposal.

Accordingly, ESI’s recommendation on the access to all pre-accession programmes be linked to the signing of SAAs, rather than to formal candidate status, could have far-reaching positive implications, if combined to a bolder integration plan. In practice it would mean closing the status issues by the autumn of 2006, drafting an EU road map and a new member state building strategy for each country of the Balkans and co-ordination of EU and US policies in the region.

Reform before significant and timely financial assistance is a dead letter

Putting European politics to the right proportions should be the first task to grasp. EU has failed to read the signs before - Mr. Solana outlined that Srebrenica was a “colossal, collective and shameful failure”, and the EU has learned a “terrible lesson” from it. The “Constitutional crisis” EU is currently facing, certainly doesn’t diminish the challenges EU will visage with the Balkans in the near future. Leaders of MS’s, counting their pounds and crones jealously today, might notice later on that investing in Balkans was indeed money well spent. By consuming bit more cash at the precise moment - despite the widely held cynical belief it is riches thrown into the endless well, immeasurable savings could be made.

More absorption capacity is needed in order to make the most out of the diminished assistance. Stronger, but co-operative presence of the EU, by Commission representations is needed, instead of ad hoc structures (EAR) channelling the CARDS-assistance. Logically, the capacities of the countries’ own democratic institutions must be bolstered without delay. EU is risking the development done so far, if it neglects to read the signs, and adapting its actions to the tides and changes of the political climate on the area.

Reform without additional contribution from the EU to Balkans is not the most feasible way of dealing with the state building challenge and stagnant economies. Despite the reflection period that EU itself must go through due to the fatal difficulties in the ratification of the Constitution, it should not turn inwards and forget Western Balkans. One can only hope that refusals to welcome the Constitution in referenda should not backfire by hindering the integration of Balkans.

Isolation of the Balkans is contingent on the failure of drawing EU attention. Catching the eye used to require utmost actions, which shouldn’t be the case, since EU has learned its lesson, hasn’t it ?

Illustration :

 Carte des Balkans in « Meyers Konversationslexikon » (1888), Band 15, Seite 916b (Sources : wikimédia).

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