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The EU

Sample Imageby Wolfgang Petritsch

Kosovo’s declaration of independence has put stability in the Western Balkans back on Europe’s agenda. Unless the European Union acts quickly, the whole region could slide backwards, with dire social, economic, and security consequences. The EU needs a comprehensive regional approach, focusing on the remaining steps that would lead each country towards membership.
The Western Balkans − a term used only since 1999 − comprises Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia (FYROM), Montenegro, Serbia, and Kosovo, with a combined population of roughly 22 million. Economic developments in the region are promising, with almost all its economies posting high growth, fueled by increasing industrial output and exports. Inward investment is steadily rising, as business seems to believe that the remaining political and security challenges – the possible negative effects of post-independence Kosovo and Bosnia’s malaise – will be overcome sooner rather than later.
Much work has already been done to re-establish and improve regional relations. The EU-led Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe has since 1999 successfully stimulated regional cross-border cooperation, for the first time since the breakdown of Yugoslavia. Energy, transport infrastructure – roads, railways, and waterways – and crime prevention have all benefited. The Stability Pact has now been transferred to local control, re-emerging as the Sarajevo-based Regional Cooperation Council, ready to develop regional and multilateral standards for its members.
The recently revived Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) is meant to be the main regional engine for trade and business generally, and will adhere both to WTO rules and the parties’ obligations towards the EU. Similarly, the South-East European Cooperation Process is one of the relatively new regional organizations that contribute to candidate and potential candidate countries’ preparations for EU membership, providing the first genuine region-wide policy forum where both EU members and candidates participate.
But these bodies must not be seen as substitutes for the far more comprehensive accession process, which only the EU itself can initiate. And yet, despite the region’s favorable prospects and relatively small size, the Union has been slow in doing so.
Certainly, the pace of candidate countries’ approach to the Union depends on the speed of their reforms. And Europe, with the vital support of the United States, worked hard to stop the carnage of the 1990’s and subsequently to help rebuild the Balkan countries.
But the EU has so far failed to prepare the Western Balkans for accession, in line with its leaders’ promise at their Thessaloniki summit in 2003 to admit the Western Balkan states when they  meet the Union’s standards.
That promise was not a matter of charity; the Balkans would add value to the EU. To be sure, the EU’s lengthy internal crisis over the proposed constitution was a major distraction, and damaged the Union’s reputation in the Balkans. Let us hope that the new Reform Treaty will help to reassure the critics and pave the way for a new – and more robust – phase of integration.
If not, one would have to ask what had happened to the European spirit of the 1970’s and 1980’s, when countries such as Greece, Portugal, and Spain, which had just emerged from dictatorship and civil unrest, were welcomed into the European community of democratic states. Political decisions taken then were far more risky than those at hand in the Balkans, and the Greek and Iberian success stories demonstrate the wisdom of the courageous decisions taken at that time.
What about today? The most recent EU members, Bulgaria and Romania, are both in the Balkans  and  both are examples of countries with special needs. While the EU at first took their accession negotiations a bit too casually, it subsequently decided to continue monitoring the two countries even after accession in order to ensure that they develop the effective administrative and judicial systems that are an obligation of membership.
The EU must learn from this experience to develop an accession strategy for the Western Balkans, whose development has been delayed by a complex post-conflict transition process. Their special needs should be taken into account in any new EU approach, giving them hope while mitigating the fallout from Kosovo.
It is in Europe’s interest as much as it is in the interest of the region to accelerate the integration process. A reinvigorated accession process would contribute to the EU’s consolidation, both territorially and politically, while strengthening its role in its wider neighborhood – the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and around the Black Sea.

* Austria’s UN-Ambassador in Geneva, previously the EU’s Special Envoy for Kosovo, Chief Negotiator at the Kosovo peace talks in Rambouillet and Paris and International High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

© Project Syndicate/Europe’s World/MDTimes

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