An agency of the EU

The Western Balkans and the EU: 'the hour of Europe'

Chaillot Paper - No126 - 06 June 2011

Morton Abramowitz, Dejan Jovic, Robert Manchin, Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, Saso Ordanovski, Momcilo Radulovic, Jacques Rupnik, Denisa Sarajlic-Maglic, Igor Stiks, Veton Surroi, Jovan Teokarević

Edited by Jacques Rupnik

The Western Balkans and the EU: 'the hour of Europe'

Chaillot Paper

Executive Summary:

Today, more than fifteen years after the end of the wars of Yugoslavia’s dissolution, the ‘Balkan question’ remains more than ever a ‘European question’. In the eyes of many Europeans in the 1990s, Bosnia was the symbol of a collective failure, while Kosovo later became a catalyst for an emerging Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). In the last decade, with the completion of the process of redrawing the map of the region, the overall thrust of the EU’s Balkans policy has moved from an agenda dominated by security issues related to the war and its legacies to an agenda focused on the perspective of the Western Balkan states’ accession to the European Union, to which there has been a formal political commitment on the part of all EU Member States since the Thessaloniki Summit in June 2003. The framework was set, the political elites in the region were – at least verbally – committed to making Europe a priority and everyone was supposedly familiar with the policy tools thanks to the previous wave of Eastern enlargement. With the region’s most contentious issues apparently having been defused, the EU could move from stability through containment towards European integration.

There are favourable trends to make this possible: the EU has emerged as the unchallenged international actor in the Balkans; the region, exhausted by a decade of conflict, is recovering stability and the capacity to cooperate; the EU has no other plausible enlargement agenda in sight and could use the direct involvement of some of its Member States in the region to facilitate the accession process.

There are three international factors that have recently reinforced the EU’s role as the key player in the region: these concern the evolution of the respective roles of the United States, Russia and Turkey.

The US. There has been a gradual convergence of European and American policies in contrast to the underlying transatlantic tensions that accompanied the two US-led military interventions in the 1990s. The last decade was marked by a steady Europeanisation of the international presence in the Balkans, while the focus of US attention continued to shift to other international priorities, including a ‘G-2’ with China, a ‘reset’ with Russia, nuclear non-proliferation in Iran, the war in Afghanistan as a test for NATO and relations with Pakistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the key to peace in the Middle East, and, most recently, the strategic implications of the 2011 ‘democratic wave’ in the Arab world. The Balkans is close to the bottom of the list, something which is not always fully appreciated in the region.

Although scaling down the US engagement in the Balkans is consistent with the process of European integration, now seen as ‘the only game in town’, the EU should encourage that engagement to continue, especially in view of the fact that the United States enjoys strong credibility in the region (particularly in Kosovo and Bosnia) and that its professed primary goal, precisely, is to assist the region’s accession to the EU. In short: European integration strengthened by an Atlantic insurance policy.

Russia. Moscow’s approach in recent years was to focus primarily on its relationship with Belgrade, acquiring a major stake in Serbia’s energy sector in exchange for Russian backing of Serbia’s position over Kosovo in the UN Security Council. After the ICJ ruling of August 2010 on Kosovo independence and Belgrade’s newfound pragmatism, Russia too has had to adjust. There is therefore likely to be only limited Russian obstruction in the Balkans, in the form of an occasional reminder that the Kosovo precedent has implications for secessionist enclaves in the Caucasus and elsewhere. In other words, for Moscow the Kosovo issue remains primarily a bargaining chip to be used for the furtherance of its own geopolitical ambitions in its ‘near-abroad’.

Turkey’s policies are the third positive factor in relation to the EU’s role in the Balkans. There have been significant positive developments in relations between Turkey and several Balkan countries (Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia), which suggest that old animosities inherited from the past can be overcome. Turkey opened enlargement negotiations with the EU in October 2005 together with Croatia. The latter, however, seems likely to join the EU in 2013 while the Turkish negotiation seems open-ended, suggesting there is no direct connection between Turkey’s accession prospects and those of the countries of the Western Balkans.

It remains to be seen whether the favourable international environment makes it any easier for the EU to shape a coherent regional approach. The question goes back to the debate of the 1990s about the regional priorities of the Stability Pact for the Balkans versus the individual competition encouraged by the Stabilisation and Association Process. Today the EU must reconcile the diverse situations and relationships it has established with individual countries of the region with the need to deal with state-building issues such as borders and minorities, as well as single market issues such as trade and communications, which require a regional approach.

There are two ways of assessing the situation in the region. One is to adopt the perspective of the EU Commission in its progress reports and to establish, in true regatta spirit, a ranking of the Western Balkans countries in their onward march towards EU membership. The other is to combine a broader regional picture with the view from the Balkan states themselves (the main aim of this volume), which shows the limits of individual, country-by-country approaches to the shared problems and remaining contentious issues and to EU integration.

The EU is dealing basically with three main categories of countries. Croatia is about to conclude its entry negotiations and is set to join the EU in 2013, although given the pace of reform of the judiciary, not even Croatia can afford to be complacent; the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and Montenegro (now about to be joined by Serbia) have EU candidate status; Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo remain the most difficult cases of belated transition from protectorates to prospective EU members. Albania should have been in the second category but – given extreme domestic political polarisation – does not seem quite ready yet to give priority to the European agenda.

However, quite apart from these favourable developments, the main case for a regional approach to EU enlargement in the Balkans stems from the specific nature of the region’s predicament: to reconcile the apparently contradictory tasks of nation-state building and European integration. The major difference with the countries of Central Europe is not just a time-lag or the degree of democratic consolidation but the question of statehood and state capacity. A democratic polity requires first of all a consensus on its territorial framework. As long as this was not established in the aftermath of the break-up of Yugoslavia and as long as issues pertaining to borders and national minorities shaped the political agenda, the chances of democratic consolidation remained slim. With the independence of Kosovo the redrawing of the map has been completed, but the successor states are still in the making: Kosovo in search of sovereignty and recognition; Bosnia and Herzegovina in search of a post-Dayton constitution (replacing a constitution designed to end the war with one for a functioning democratic polity); Serbia in search of accepted/acceptable borders with both abovementioned states (an equation complicated by its non-recognition of Kosovo and the ambivalence of its relations with Republika Srpska); Macedonia/FYROM in search of an identity and a name. For the first time the European Union, a project conceived in order to relativise states’ sovereignty, has become involved in the formation of new nation-states that also aspire to become members of the Union. Until now the EU’s transformative power has proved effective in integrating established states; now it is confronted with the challenge of integrating contested states.

The process of accompanying the creation of future Member States has implications for the other closely-related aspect of state capacity. It is one thing for EU accession prospects to facilitate a reformist consensus among candidate states and sometimes to help tip the political balance in favour of democratic forces (as was the case a decade ago in Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria) at the expense of post-communist nationalists. It is another to facilitate institution-building and state capacity. The dual question of statehood and state capacity is a specific feature of South-East Europe and invites a search for a modified, adapted EU approach to enlargement. The argument that border and minority issues in the applicant states are interdependent strengthens the case for a concerted regional approach to EU enlargement. The shared European roof can help defuse contentious territorial and institutional issues in parallel to the EU accession process.

This is where the role of EU Member States directly involved in the region is of importance, although the contentious issues concerning the territorial waters between Croatia and Slovenia or concerning the name dispute between Macedonia/FYROM and Greece are a reminder that an EU neighbour need not be a vector of integration. No less importantly, the ‘Cyprus lesson’ suggests that contentious issues should be solved prior to EU accession when the European leverage is strongest.

It would be unwise to let the current impression of drift spread in the region. The ‘regatta’ approach seems to work fine for the EU, as it makes the enlargement process ‘discreet’ enough to make it acceptable to Western public opinion and allegedly stimulating enough for the political elites’ reformist agenda in the Balkan countries concerned. But this is also where ‘enlargement fatigue’ within the EU meets ‘accession fatigue’ in the Balkans. The latter has two faces: the region’s political elites sometimes use verbal commitments to EU integration as a smokescreen for politics as a business model while we witness the erosion of popular support for EU accession: strongest where it is least advanced, in Albania, weakest where it is most advanced, in Croatia.

The EU should strengthen the regional approach by giving all the countries of the region candidate status and a date for the opening of negotiations. The pace and completion of the process will then depend on each country’s capacity to deliver, thus making their respective responsibilities clear and the political costs involved more palatable to political elites in the region. But that, in turn, requires the EU to overcome its hesitation between containment and integration and to renew its commitment to the Balkans’ European future in order to restore its credibility in the region and at international level.

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