The European Commission today announced its new
strategy for the Western Balkans: “A credible enlargement
perspective for and enhanced EU engagement.”
That’s good news. The non-EU members of the
Western Balkans are floundering. Autocratic impulses, Russian
trouble-making, and Chinese cash are loosening the region’s
attachment to liberal democratic values and commitment to joining
the European Union, which has become far more difficult after a long
recession, the migrant crisis, Greece’s financial debacle, and
rising rule of law requirements. Anything that increases the
credibility of the enlargement perspective should be welcomed, both
in the region and in Washington.
Does the EU announcement portend real improvements
or substantial acceleration in the enlargement process? The proof
will be in the pudding, but the answer for the moment has to be yes.
Brussels now says it will be able to admit its first new members by
2025, which means they would have to qualify fully by 2023 in order
to allow two years for ratification in national parliaments.
Montenegro and Serbia are leading the regatta at
the moment, based on the number of chapters of the acquis
communautaire already under negotiation. Kosovo is in the rear, not
yet having achieved candidacy status. But the announcement makes it
clear each country will in principle qualify on its own without any
pre-ordained order. It also underlines the importance of settling
issues with neighbors, which means Serbia will have to come to terms
with Kosovo sooner rather than later in order to take advantage of
its leading position in the regatta.
The European Commission announcement includes an
indication of priority areas for 2018-20:
rule of law, security and migration,
socio-economic development, transport and energy connectivity,
digital agenda, reconciliation and good neighbourly relations.
This too is good, as it tells gives the Western
Balkan countries a pretty clear idea of what they need to work on.
There are really no surprises here: rule of law has been at the top
of Brussels’ concerns since what is now regarded as the premature
admission of Bulgaria and Romania, the migrant crisis has
preoccupied many EU members for several years, connecting the
Balkans to the rest of the EU with transport and energy
infrastructure is a real and pressing need, and the “digital agenda”
presumably includes cyberdefense as well as improving internet
performance in the region.
Reconciliation and good neighborly relations are
still big challenges in the Western Balkans, the former inside
Bosnia and Herzegovina and the latter between Kosovo and Serbia. The
Spanish are said to have drawn a red line at Kosovo’s entry into the
EU as a sovereign state, apparently due to Madrid’s own concerns
about Catalonian independence. That is terrible, since Belgrade has
already accepted in principle that it and Pristina will qualify
separately for EU membership, which is available only to sovereign
states. Madrid’s position will encourage Belgrade’s intransigence.
But I am also told that Spain has indicated it
will accept whatever solution Pristina and Belgrade come up with. I
hope to see them do that sooner rather than later. If Belgrade waits
until just before EU accession, it can be forced to accept whatever
the most Pristina-friendly government in the EU decides. If Pristina
waits, it runs the risk of seeing Belgrade accede to the EU without
a satisfactory resolution of the issue.
That’s all for now. The EU does not seem to have
posted yet the full strategy paper. I look forward to reading it and
commenting in more detail in the future. But so far, so good.
PS: This is the full enlargement strategy paper,
in what appears to be a near-final draft. Has anyone seen the final