(Foto Soroll, Flickr)

The road to EU membership, promised to the Western Balkans in Thessaloniki, is becoming longer and less certain. It is high time for a "Thessaloniki 2", a new summit to consolidate the European perspective of the region

17/06/2009 -  Anonymous User

By Jovan Teokarević*

Six years after the Thessaloniki summit of the highest representatives of the European Union and Western Balkan states, it's time for "Thessaloniki 2". The main message of "Thessaloniki 1" was twofold: Western Balkan states have a real perspective of EU membership, and "Europe's map will be complete only when states from our region join the EU". In the meantime those states have made considerable progress in political and economic reforms, and have come closer to the EU membership, but all this has been dangerously slowed down now. To avoid open crisis, the key ideas from the June 2003 summit should be renewed and enriched taking into account the accomplished level of the Europeanization of the region, as well as other important changes there, on the "old continent" and in the world.

Among politicians and citizens of Western Balkan states a consensus has been growing lately, saying that the road to the EU membership, promised in Thessaloniki, is becoming longer and less certain, which is why, in addition to a retrospective look, we now need even more a thorough and strategic look into the future, made together with the European Union.

This could serve as the shortest description of the goal the new EU-Western Balkan summit of heads of states and governments would have. Both parties would benefit not primarily from the meeting itself, but from a multitude of intellectual, political and diplomatic activities that would lead to it. The high-level summit itself should not be omitted, though, since only the European Council strengthened by leaders from the region, could reach decisions with important, long-lasting and mutually binding commitments.

„Thessaloniki 2" is, in fact, planned by the previous summit's conclusions, as one format within which representatives of the two sides could meet in future. The other one, named the „EU-Western Balkan Forum", included foreign and interior ministers, and other ministers, if needed. Their meetings have fortunately become routine during the last few years, but the high-level summit has never been repeated.

In addition to regular yearly progress reports, the EU has in the last six years adopted several important documents about the Western Balkans, that have been used as the basis for discussion at the „EU-WB Forum", but also for correction, adjustment and innovation of the EU policies towards the region. Besides, countless meetings between the two sides have been organized in multilateral or bilateral formats. One should stress, as the EU never misses to do, that the Union has never given up its promise from Thessaloniki. On the contrary, it has enriched its cooperation and aid to Western Balkans with many new programmes and initiatives, that have been used by our countries, and without which our progress would have been much more difficult, not only when it comes to European integration.

States from the region have in the meantime been engaged in this ambitious Europeanisation business, and have achieved many results, which is why the situation is now much more stable and prosperous than six years ago. Governments have turned to work, citizens show exceptionally high Euroenthusiasm, and there's a constructive competition in European integration among states, that includes cooperation as well.

Following a set of bilateral arrangements, a new multilateral free trade arrangement CEFTA is up and running, despite understandable „birth pains"; Regional Cooperation Council, that has taken over from the Stability Pact for South East Europe, is getting more active; and the whole region is becoming more and more part of the European family of nations through various programmes, from transport to energy community, education and research, police cooperation...

States from the region have been rewarded for their reform efforts with higher places on the EU „membership ladder", that also included bigger financial aid. At the time of „Thessaloniki 1", only the Croatian application for membership was on the table. In the meantime, this country has become not only official candidate for membership (followed by Macedonia), but has finished the biggest part of accession negotiations, too. All other states are still considered potential candidates, but have signed Stabilisation and Association Agreements (Macedonian and Albanian ones have been also ratified). During the last several months Montenegro and Albania have officially applied for EU membership.

In view of many observers and participants, due to good results, we should all be very satisfied, particularly if we compare the current state of affairs with hopelessness we've been all faced with a decade ago. That's why many people are inclined to suggest that the work should be carried on according to the same formula since it obviously bears fruit. Business should be „as usual", in other words, because the coordinates have been drawn in, and all it takes is to keep the chosen course.

We are, however, still missing serious recapitulation of the work done and results achieved, as well as of policies and perspectives, and the best thing would be to accompany all that by the high-level dialogue. That's why the idea on „Thessaloniki 2" is nowadays supported not only in the Balkans, and not only by experts and civil society organisations. Some are more inclined to speak about the same thing in terms of the „Zagreb Process", while others, like the Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini, would like to have the USA actively involved and present in the meeting.

In any case, there are more than enough reasons for this initiative. One should start with the recent warning of the Serbian President Boris Tadic, who said, speaking practically for the whole region: „one gets the impression that the European Union is not ready at this moment to accept the Western Balkan countries at the pace we would all like to have". People in the region are afraid of the strengthening of the „enlargement fatigue" within the European Union, which paradoxically coincides with the fifth anniversary of the last wave of enlargement, that has proven to be enormously advantageous both to new and old EU member states. At least three intertwined factors led to „enlargement fatigue", and none of them existed at the time of „Thessaloniki 1" in such clear and frightening form.

The first factor is internal economic crisis in the EU member states, that began because of poor adjustment to globalisation, and is currently aggravated by the global financial meltdown and economic recession. All countries have unfortunately turned to economic nationalism, and the resistance towards further enlargement has become an expected consequence, that can be so easily misused in domestic political rows.

The second factor is the European Union's institutional crisis, that is not from yesterday, but has become obvious during the institutional adjustment of the Union - from the failure of the European Constitution in 2005, to the current efforts to successfully finish the ratification of the Lisbon treaty until the end of 2009. It's not only „their" business but „our" as well, for without the planned institutional reforms, further enlargement is simply impossible, except for Croatia, in which case some palliative one-time measures might be used.

The third factor that led to the „enlargement fatigue" was a real, albeit informal, tightening of accession criteria for Western Balkan countries. On one side, an explicit reminder of all Copenhagen criteria became part of one Lisbon treaty article, and on the other, the long-forgotten „absorption capacity" criterion (later renamed into „integration capacity") was stressed in other documents. As a result, the implicit EU message to the aspirants has considerably changed. While Central European countries were told before 2004: „You'll get in when you get ready for us", Western Balkan countries are being told now: „You'll get in not only when you get ready for us, but also when we get ready for you."

There are many signs of slowing down the European integration of Western Balkan countries. Macedonia has been waiting for three and a half years already as an official candidate for the EU membership to begin its accession negotiations. This could very easily be the perspective of other countries from the region when they finally become candidates. Because of incomplete cooperation of Serbia with the Hague Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the EU hasn't for a whole year activated the Interim Trade Agreement with Serbia, that should open the way for the implementation and ratification of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement. The current delay in Bosnia and Herzegovina's European integration, everybody agrees, comes from the fact that the country is further away from the consensus on its own future than it used to be couple of years ago.

A big and equally unpleasant surprise is the ongoing Slovenian blockade of Croatian accession negotiations. According to the plans of only a year ago, they should have been completed by the end of 2009, which should have made possible the signing and the ratification of the accession agreement during the next twelve months or so. In other words, everybody expected Croatia to get the EU membership card at the end of 2010, or at the beginning of 2011. At this moment, even the year 2014 is being contemplated, which only few years ago, according to many expectations, was the final date for the accession of all Western Balkan countries into the European Union.

Due to serious eyebrow raising in Brussels every time an application for membership is being mentioned by other countries of the region, it is obvious that a lot of time will pass between this application, positive avis, granting of the official candidate status and the real beginning of accession negotiations - we are talking years, rather than months here. How long will then those negotiations for membership last is anyone's guess, but they can hardly be shorter than the ones new EU members from Central Europe had. All in all, once Croatia gets in, other states from the region - and not all of them, most probably - could count on the EU membership only in the second part of the next decade.

Everybody will have obstacles on that road: economic underdevelopment, coupled with too little rule of law and too much corruption and organised crime will count for all, while the lack of administrative capacities - for most of them. Bosnia will be additionally troubled by its divisions, and Serbia and Kosovo by status issues and mutual relations.

In the meantime, an extremely worrying wave of spoiling relations has hit the whole region. Kosovo's Declaration of independence in February 2008 was an important reason, but also a pretext for this. In addition to bilateral relations, regional cooperation has been severely endangered - and it had only begun to develop prior to that, due to military conflicts in the 1990s.

Several Western Balkan countries have serious bilateral problems with the EU member states: Croatia with Slovenia over the border issue, Serbia with the Netherlands over the satisfactory level of cooperation with the Hague Tribunal, Macedonia with Greece over the country's name. These conflicts are slowing down not only individual countries on their road towards the EU, but the region as a whole. Although Croatia and Albania joined NATO in April 2009, there are doubts whether NATO will continue to enlarge throughout the region, due to the Greek blockade of Macedonia's membership, and Serbia's decision to turn neutral. Delaying or completely halting NATO enlargement could seriously undermine the enlargement of the EU.

The specific engagement of the EU and NATO in Bosnia and Kosovo in future is a matter of controversy, and the same is true for the status of the region as a whole: it ceased to be priority, especially in the US politics, and could yet become one of the main victims of the current economic crisis.

If there are enough reasons for „Thessaloniki 2", as was shown here, let's turn to the goals the summit should achieve. First of all, it is important to reaffirm and consolidate the European perspective of Western Balkans in new conditions, with a realistic and stimulating plan for future actions. Secondly, a new mechanism should be worked out, capable of connecting even more directly, the reforms done with the visible and clear advancement in European integration, understandable to all citizens (like the current visa issue).

Thirdly, the existing European partnership between the EU and Western Balkans should be strengthened by a higher level of mutual commitments. They should not be limited to, but should certainly include the offer of the candidate status and the beginning of accession negotiations to all the states in the region. Western Balkan countries would not be freed from meeting the Copenhagen criteria in this way. But, a whole decade after the launch of the Stabilisation and Association Process, and after a big joint work of the EU and the region's states, it is, however, natural to expect that all countries have candidate status, and are also able to begin accession negotiations - not more, but not less than this, either.

Of special significance for the summit would be to devise a strategy for a radical improvement of bilateral and multilateral relations in Western Balkans, for which purpose a parallel or preliminary high-level regional summit should be perhaps organized, as suggested by the Igman Initiative - an NGO active in Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia.

Finally, in order to avoid apathy on an obviously long future path to the EU membership, and to stimulate both the European identity and accountability for this process on the part of societies and governments from the region, one could also think of the inclusion of all these acceding countries in a bigger number of community programmes. This kind of „virtual membership" could be then used to get to the real one, in an easier and faster way.

If „Thessaloniki 2" is to be organized with success, an internal consensus about it should be first of all reached in the region, through a wide debate of governments, business and non-governmental organizations, among experts and wide public opinion. The same consensus is necessary between the region and the EU, and within the EU as well, since this is a genuinely joint project, that should end with a joint strategic view of the future.

The question „when" to organize the summit is equally important as the „why" and the „how". Obviously, the current year is out of the question, because for the summit to begin to look realistically, at least two things should meet: the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty should be completed, and economic crisis must cease to be the only possible topic of discussion.

Some people will perhaps see the suggestion for the high-level summit as too ambitious, ill-timed, or even counter-productive. Like others with the same or similar initiatives, I am convinced that there are enough reasons and a true possibility to repeat the success of „Thessaloniki 1". Like its predecessor six years ago, in an equally important moment, „Thessaloniki 2" could stimulate and accelerate Western Balkan European integration - still the most important and unfinished European business.

*Professor, University of Belgrade
Director, Belgrade Centre for European Integration (BeCEI)