Western Balkans hope to move slowly towards EU

AFP , Monday 10 Oct 2011

When the European Commission announces its progress report on Wednesday, Western Balkans countries hope for small steps forward as the realisation is dawning that EU enlargement will be a very slow process

As the economic crisis continues in Europe, support for EU integration has fallen in most Western Balkans countries, although the majority generally agrees there is no alternative.

Montenegro and Serbia should both get some good news with the commission expected to recommend candidacy status for Belgrade. For Podgorica, a candidate member since December 2010, it would be a date for the start of accession talks. Serbia will reap the reward for arresting the last two remaining fugitives of the UN war crimes court, earlier this year.

But Belgrade's hopes that it could also set a start date for accession talks have largely evaporated after the recent unrest in northern Kosovo and the decision to ban a gay pride parade.

Leaked drafts of the evaluation report show that the commission will demand Serbia "show a more constructive attitude" on Kosovo, whose 2008 declaration of independence Belgrade does not recognise.

Serbia and Kosovo started EU-mediated talks earlier this year to solve practical problems. But Belgrade has delayed the dialogue due to the unrest in northern Kosovo and said it would not return to the table until that issue was solved.

This attitude could hurt Belgrade when the EU member states have to decide on candidacy status later this year. Germany already made it clear it believes normalisation of relations with Kosovo is one of the conditions.

Macedonia, which has already been accepted as a candidate member in 2005, expects the commission to recommend opening accession talks for the third time.

Such talks have been consistently blocked by EU member Greece because of a long-running name row between Macedonia and Athens. UN mediation has so far been fruitless, and there is no indication it will soon be solved.

Bosnia and Albania, both hit by prolonged political crises which have effectively paralysed EU-sought reforms, have no illusions about the EC report. "It will be hard to get good news from Brussels," Lutfi Dervishi of the Albanian branch of Transparency International said.

Last year the commission already rejected Tirana's membership bid and urged Albania's political forces to sort out the crisis. A western diplomat in Tirana lamented that the country "does not have a culture of consensus and compromise", as the stalemate continued.

Bosnian analysts and politicians alike are expecting a very negative report from the commission as Sarajevo goes into a second year without a central government due to inter-ethnic political wrangling. "Bosnia is trailing behind all other Western Balkans countries in European integration," said Halid Genjac, the head of Bosnia's parliamentary commission on European integration.

Only one territory seems further away from Europe's door than Bosnia and that is Kosovo. Five EU members have not even recognised its declaration of independence from Serbia and until they do, Pristina cannot apply for membership.

The best it can hope for is a recommendation by the commission to lift the visa requirement. At the moment Kosovans are the only people in the Western Balkans who need visas to travel into the Schengen zone covering 25 European countries.

The Western Balkans best in class Croatia gets its very last progress report on Wednesday as it already wrapped up accession talks in June this year after six years of negotiations. It is due to join the union mid-2013 and it will be the second former Yugoslav republic in the EU after Slovenia. But after Croatia joins analysts here believe that it will take years before any other Balkan state will join the European bloc.

Ivan Vejvoda, a Serbian diplomat and analyst who currently works for the German Marshall Fund, a US public policy institute, stressed that even small steps forward matter enormously. "Maintaining the momentum (towards the EU) even if we advance just millimetres is very important for those who are pushing through reforms" in the Balkans, he told AFP.

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