LONDON – Officially, the European Union has one Balkan policy: admit the region’s six countries. At the EU-Western Balkans summit in Thessaloniki in June 2003, all of the EU’s member states reiterated their “unequivocal support to the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries.”
Partly as a result of that agreement, the Balkan countries have taken major steps forward. In Serbia, from where so much of the region’s destruction was planned, Boris Tadic’s government is seeking tighter links with the EU. Alongside Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia moved closer to NATO in 2006. In 2009, both Croatia and Albania joined the Alliance. Even the tiny country of Montenegro has had a hopeful few years since it declared independence in 2006.
After the EU established explicit criteria for visa liberalization and made clear that it was willing to admit some Balkan countries and not others, three states (Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro) kick-started reforms and achieved visa-free travel to the EU in 2009, with another two expected to follow shortly. The European Commission has declared that Macedonia is ready to start accession talks, while Montenegro, Albania, and Serbia have submitted membership applications.
But, as European leaders prepare to meet their Balkan counterparts in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, things have begun to look a lot less certain. Europeans seem increasingly divided about what to do with the Balkans.
Some policymakers in Brussels and EU capitals increasingly view the prospect of EU enlargement into the Balkans with alarm. Apart from Croatia – which is likely to join first – the Balkans countries are the poorest ever to have applied for EU membership. All have uncompetitive economies burdened with high unemployment. Although they have made progress on governance, many of them remain weak states. Most have also experienced bitter conflict and political division. At a time when the EU is still struggling to make use of the Lisbon institutions, some member states perceive a risk that admitting the Balkan countries too soon could damage the Union.
Other policymakers, however, see an even greater risk that postponing EU accession into the indefinite future could undermine the credibility of the declaration made at Thessaloniki. This, they believe, could undermine the fragile progress that has been made in the Balkans in the last decade. At a time when even a long-standing EU member state like Greece is facing deadly street riots, some European governments worry that withdrawing hope from a region with a recent history of violent conflict could be dangerous.
Divided between the fear of a hasty enlargement and the fear of a slow one, European governments have begun losing influence across the Balkans, as the region’s leaders have started to doubt the sincerity of the EU’s commitment – and the need to pursue EU-mandated reforms. The challenge for the EU is how to get back to the point where it is once again creating incentives for progress, rather than sowing disillusionment and the possibility of regression.
European leaders should use the Sarajevo summit to announce an intention to boost the EU’s engagement in the region by beginning the so-called “screening” process for Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, and Montenegro within the next year, and to undertake a similar process for Kosovo.
The screening process forces applicant countries to take a long, hard look at how close they really are to meeting the accession requirements, thereby introducing a much-needed dose of realism into their debates about what needs to be done in the years ahead. It also gives both the candidate countries and the European Commission a detailed map of what must be accomplished in each area, from food safety to rural development. It helps in devising strategies for how to use EU financial assistance and technical advice to best effect.
Furthermore, in order to promote the kind of regional competition that has worked so well to motivate regional reforms in the past, the six countries should begin the process of screening together. The competition – and prospect of belonging to a group of frontrunners – would be an added incentive for Balkan leaders to engage with the EU accession process. None of them will want the European Commission to note that one country is doing better than another.
These are difficult times for the Balkans. Doubts about the future of the European project in the wake of the euro crisis could push voters away from pro-European reformers and towards nationalist politicians. The best way forward is to use tools that the EU already has at its disposal, but to use them more fully and effectively.
The recent experience with visa liberalization shows that the EU has the power to motivate serious reforms in weak states if it mobilizes the right incentives. To do so requires clear and objective criteria, close technical engagement by European Commission experts, a specific timetable of opportunities, and transparent assessments that trigger positive competition between neighboring countries.
By the summer of 2011, screening should start for all countries of the region. The aim should be that by the close of Poland’s EU presidency at the end of that year, all the countries will have completed screening and achieved candidate status. This is not about making concessions; it is about putting in place a rigorous but fair process that encourages Balkan countries to identify their shortcomings and devise plans to overcome them.