- Guest Commentator

Rosa Balfour and Corina Stratulat
European Policy Centre, Brussels

Squaring EU accession and regional cooperation in the Balkans

The European Union’s (EU’s) enlargement process offered to the Balkan countries runs on parallel tracks to the regional cooperation expected from the countries in the region through the Stabilisation and Association Process. In principle, these parallel tracks do not meet: the accession process is bilateral and, given the different situations of each country and the continuing struggle to solve outstanding disputes, is likely to take place with a differentiated timing. In practice, the two processes could influence each other positively, if the EU manages to find the right balance between incentives and conditions.

9 December 2011 was an important date for the EU’s enlargement process. Croatia signed its Accession Treaty and, pending the ratification of the Treaty by all the member states’ national parliaments and a referendum in Croatia, the country is expected to join the EU on 1 July 2013. In recent months, Croatia has provided a concrete example of how accession and regional cooperation can be mutually supporting. The country spearheaded recent improvements in regional cooperation and reconciliation while jogging towards EU membership. Its President, Ivo Josipovic, has given assurances that this process will continue beyond joining the EU.

But the other decisions made on 9 December on enlargement suggest that the EU is not making best use of its leverage on both tracks. Montenegro and Serbia did not get from the European Council what they had hoped for. Following the accomplishment of what appeared to be the final conditions for moving towards the EU – full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia – Serbia found that the member states could not agree on the ‘good faith’ of its commitments regarding the normalisation of relations through the EU-sponsored dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. Since the summer, the agreements reached between the two sides have met problems of implementation on the ground, with too many episodes of violence in northern Kosovo. The General Affairs Council and the European Council will review this position respectively in February and March 2012.

Montenegro too will have to wait until then before receiving the green light to open accession talks in June, if it manages to produce results in the fight it has been carrying out against organised crime and corruption. A special report by the European Commission will assess Montenegro’s track record in protecting fundamental rights and the independence of the judiciary. To be sure, none of the EU-hopefuls in the region can get ahead without the satisfaction of ‘good governance’ criteria – maintaining the rule of law, an independent judiciary, adequate administrative capacity, and an efficient anti-corruption strategy. This includes Croatia – even though the country already has one foot in the EU’s door – which will be monitored until entry on its commitments in the area of judiciary and fundamental rights. Should persistent deficiencies be identified during the monitoring process, the Council may decide to take ‘appropriate measures’ that could delay Croatia’s accession date. These conditions may be seen as raising the bar for EU accession, but on the positive side they will help the Balkan countries consolidate their democracies.

Coupled with the absence of any reference in the European Council conclusions to starting a visa dialogue with Kosovo (and the confusion over when and how this may start), these decisions are not just a setback for enlargement: they could also have a negative impact on regional cooperation. Serbia was asked, among other things, to step up its efforts to make regional cooperation ‘inclusive’ (read to accept Kosovo on the tables of regional cooperation). Yet there is a risk of alienating Belgrade’s efforts to get closer to the EU which, in turn, could undermine President Boris Tadic’s government support to continue the dialogue. The delays in starting a visa dialogue with Kosovo mean that its citizens are unable to leave the country, contributing to making Kosovo the ‘black hole’ of the Balkans. This does not foster regional cooperation from below, nor does it give Pristina an incentive to be constructive in the dialogue.

Encouraging regional cooperation, while giving momentum to the enlargement process, is not an easy task, and requires careful balancing between incentives and rigorous conditions. The key is EU credibility. The latest decisions to keep the EU door ajar rather than open will help neither accession nor regional cooperation.

Rosa Balfour is Senior Policy Analyst/Head of the Europe in the World Programme at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, and an expert in EU foreign policy and enlargement. Corina Stratulat is Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre, and specializes in EU integration and enlargement. Their most recent publication on the Balkans is the EPC Issue Paper on ‘The Democratic Transformation of the Balkans”, available at http://www.epc.eu/documents/uploads/pub_1363_the_democratic_transformation_of_the_balkans.pdf


Rosa Balfour and Corina Stratulat, respectively, European Policy Centre, Brussels (Photo: courtesy of Ms Balfour and Ms Stratulat)

Rosa Balfour and Corina Stratulat, respectively, European Policy Centre, Brussels (Photo: courtesy of Ms Balfour and Ms Stratulat)