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Western Balkans: the situation is gloomier than it may seem

While the EU is closing the last chapters before accession with Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro are eyeing the prospect of becoming member candidates. But can the EU integrate the whole region, including Kosovo and Bosnia?

2010 was a good a year for the Western Balkans. The passing of the Lisbon Treaty in December 2009 helped the EU get back into a more pro-enlargement mood. In its most recent progress report, the European Commission recommended granting Montenegro candidate status, while Serbia’s application for membership was sent by the Council for an opinion to the Commission. In June 2010, the EU finally approved launching the ratification process of Serbia’s Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), the implementation of which had been put on hold since its inception in 2007 owing to Serbia’s unsatisfactory cooperation with the Hague Tribunal. From December 2010, Bosnian and Albanian citizens gained the privilege to enjoy visa-free travel to the EU, similarly to their Serbian, Montenegrin and Macedonian counterparts who gained this right one year earlier.

Now Serbia and Montenegro are eyeing the prospect of becoming a candidate, which would mean not only getting a step closer to EU membership but also a significant increase in assistance funds to implement institutional reforms. The fact that the Hungarian Presidency’s Balkan agenda turned out to be quite unexciting might also be a good sign indicating that things are mostly on track. Since due to changes introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, the EU’s High Representative and Catherine Ashton’s team will deal with foreign and security policy issues, meaning the tricky questions of “stateness” in Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo, the presidency is left with the task of managing the enlargement process. This at the moment means carrying out organizational and administrative tasks in “business as usual” mode.

Serbia negotiating its membership is likely to have wider stabilizing effects reaching beyond its borders. It might motivate Bosnia to work harder to become a candidate. A Serbia keen on joining the EU might serve as the best incentive for Bosnia’s so far failed institutional reforms, which might also discourage separatist aspirations in the Republika Srpska.

Improving relations between Serbia and the EU and the close prospect of reaching candidate status might help to normalize relations with neighboring Kosovo. While recognizing Kosovo’s independence is not expected of Serbia, having stable borders and peaceful relations with neighbors is a requirement. Negotiations over technical issues have just started between the two governments, which deal with practical problems directly affecting citizens.

True, Serbia and Kosovo are sitting down at the negotiating table, yet a breakthrough in bilateral relations can hardly be expected. Kosovo’s government looks weaker than ever as its reputation has been wrecked by corruption charges and ugly allegations about involvement in organ trafficking. Next spring Serbia will hold elections, meaning that its leadership will be unlikely to consider difficult compromises. The Kosovo side in general is skeptical about the dialogue and views it as “a way for Serbia to keep its foot in the door,” i.e. as another opportunity for putting the status issue back on the agenda.

Serbia’s relations with Kosovo might pose a serious obstacle in the final phase when Serbia will be on the brink of entering the EU. For the time being, the EU does not have an idea about what to do with Kosovo, as five of the member states stubbornly refuse to accept its independence. Although the EU is deeply engaged in Kosovo’s stabilization, primarily through its rule of law mission (EULEX), it does not have a vision about how to include Kosovo into the enlargement process.

While Bosnia has an EU perspective just like any other state in the region, considering that the EU lacks a clear strategy towards the country, many doubt it could ever become a member. Some sort of special status or privileged partnership might be more realistic on the long run.

In addition, social tensions can be expected to grow in the region due to the recent economic crisis. Although economic growth has picked up, reaching 2–4 % this year, it is unlikely to increase employment in the near future. Deeply indebted governments must repay their loans. Economic woes were clearly a factor fuelling recent protests in Serbia and Croatia, feeding anger against the incumbent governments.

In Croatia, where accession has to be affirmed through a public referendum, popular support for EU membership has been nearing record lows (39% in January 2011), which might be exacerbated by the current economic crisis. Closing the last negotiation chapters under the Hungarian Presidency requires Croatia to implement painful reforms including privatizing or liquidating its unprofitable shipyards. Thousands of jobs could be lost, making EU membership even more unpopular.

Despite the recent positive trends, the region (except the already almost-member Croatia) could go either way: it could integrate into the EU in the current decade or so, or drift away from it and become a zone of various insecurities in the EU’s backyard.

Bea Huszka is a Balkans expert, associate professor at ELTE University, Budapest