Western Balkans and EU enlargement: the state of play
by Ulrike Lunacek
The enlargement of the EU is in the interests of both sides, but the European peace project will not be complete until the south east of the continent is brought into the fold, writes Ulrike Lunacek
The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union is a timely reminder of the principle of 'cooperation instead of confrontation' that has ended a history of bloodshed in every generation on this continent. And it is also a reminder that the European peace project will not be complete until south eastern Europe is part and parcel of the EU, with its promise of 'never again'.
So where do we stand in the enlargement process in the Western Balkans after Commissioner Stefan Füle published the recent progress report? During a 1982 presidential news conference, Ronald Reagan quipped about Russian-American relations that "it takes two to tango". Since then, the phrase has been used regularly to describe any situation in which two partners are by definition equally important to the outcome, such as the EU enlargement process. Enlargement remains in the interests of both the EU and the candidate countries. The governments of current member states need to make the case for the expansion of the bloc more than ever.
One lesson from the eurozone crisis is that the accession criteria must be strictly monitored by the European Commission and progress must depend on the candidate countries fulfilling these criteria. This applies notably to Croatia, the next country to join by mid-2013: it must not slow down its reform process with EU accession in sight. On the contrary, for Croatia's government this final step to EU membership should be used as catalyst for speedily tackling outstanding reforms, in particular in the fields of justice and anti-corruption, the protection of ethnic and sexual minorities, and the domestic prosecution of war crimes.
Montenegro is the next country at the negotiation table. In the overall picture it has already achieved much. But there are still some areas of concern, including around the long-standing leader of the country, Milo Djukanovic, successfully returning to the top of his party ahead of yesterday's elections. Corruption is widespread, with the political elite and foreign investors deeply involved.
The main problem for Montenegro is that although many laws are being adopted that are in line with the EU acquis, they are poorly implemented. This is why things on the ground do not change enough and legitimate public protests against the political elite are constantly growing. However, some positive elements are that structures have been put in place to give parliament more oversight and that the negotiating process with the EU will be inclusive of civil society organisations.
As for minorities, Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians, people with disabilities as well as the LGBT community – despite changes in attitudes at government level – are still in practice subject to discrimination. And there is still a lack of will to investigate thoroughly cases of physical violence and intimidation against journalists and to demonstrate a strong commitment to a media free of political interference.
As for Serbia, which was given candidate status last spring, the commission has not recommended a date for the start of accession negotiations at this stage. I welcome this decision as Belgrade has not yet sufficiently improved its relations with Kosovo. In particular, it has failed to fully implement the agreements on regional cooperation and border control concluded between Serbia and Kosovo under EU facilitation in February. The agreements were the key factor in the decision to extend candidate status but regrettably, the Serbian governments – old and new – have been stalling implementation. The Integrated Border Management agreement was signed just last week, with implementation still a long way off.
Normalising the relations between Serbia and Kosovo – which after its declaration of independence in 2008 unfortunately has not been recognised yet neither by Serbia nor by five EU member states – is a prerequisite for the EU Council and commission giving a date for the start of accession negotiations. Normalisation should include a radical change in the intolerable and dangerous situation in the north of Kosovo, where a major part of the Serb population does not accept the government in Pristina despite the opportunity, according to the Kosovo constitution, of having broad autonomy, as Serbs in the south already enjoy. The government in Pristina also still needs to do more to reach out to Serbs in the north and win them over, but even more so Serbia needs to stop its untransparent support of parallel Serb structures in the north of Kosovo.
The Serbian government's decision to ban the Pride parade in Belgrade a week ago is also deeply regrettable. Serbia is worth more than the way it treats LGBT people today, but the Pride ban cannot be set aside. I count on Füle to continue condemning negative attitudes and policies against LGBT people, like he did for Belgrade Pride. The commission must keep up the close monitoring of the protection of minority rights in Serbia and all the other countries of the region.
As for Kosovo itself, the commission is right giving this newest European state a real and palpable accession perspective with the feasibility study for a Stabilisation and Association Agreement. Indeed, EU member states should follow the commission's proposal and give green light for the start of the SAA negotiations as soon as Kosovo has complied with the necessary benchmarks. Kosovo, nevertheless, needs to improve the functioning of its state institutions and start delivering tangible results in the fight against corruption and organised crime, as well as in establishing rule of law for all its citizens. This means especially that the promised electoral reforms need to be swiftly implemented.
In comparison with other Ex-Yugoslav states, which built their new states on ex-Yugoslav administrative structures, experiences and contacts, Kosovo is still behind: capacity in administrative structures is not yet fully developed; the fight against corruption and organised crime at all levels needs stronger efforts and results. But there have also been some important steps forward, and that is why the feasibility study gives a positive outlook for Kosovo on its EU-integration process.
In general these three issues – the rule of law, the fight against corruption and the protection of minorities – together with the difficult social and economic situation, are the main challenges for all the countries in the region and need to be tackled more intensively by all governments.
In the case of Macedonia, anger is directed against the neighbouring country and EU member state Greece over the naming issue. For the fourth year in a row the commission has recommended opening accession negotiations with Macedonia. The country has been on hold for far too long. It is unacceptable that one country can block the progress of another. The council must now step up the pressure on Greece to remove its veto and allow the opening of accession negotiations.
Bilateral disputes should never be misused as leverage to block a country's progress in its path towards the EU. Instead, disputes should be dealt with via an EU arbitrage mechanism. The European Parliament already has called for such a mechanism. My Green colleagues and I in the parliament also believe that a solution to the name issue is close as long as the parties show understanding and flexibility – or as I said in the beginning – it takes always two to tango. The parliament will now adopt its own accession reports over the next few months.
Ulrike Lunacek MEP is foreign affairs spokeswoman for the Greens/European Free Alliance political group in the European Parliament, the parliament's rapporteur for Kosovo and co-president of the Intergroup on LGBT rights
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