Thursday, February 11, 2010

EU presses for better relations among Balkan neighbours

The European Union is telling countries from the Western Balkans that better relations amongst themselves are key to accelerating their progress towards the EU.

According to EU diplomats in Brussels, politicians from Balkan countries are being reminded in private talks that regional co-operation and good neighbourhood relations are also formal conditions in the enlargement process.

The message has become more important after two clear examples of how unresolved disputes can prevent progress towards the EU. One was a dispute between Slovenia and Croatia that for almost one year blocked accession talks between Zagreb and the EU.

Another is the name dispute between Macedonia and Greece. The dispute is being used to block Macedonia's membership of NATO and as a reason for not giving it a date for opening EU membership talks.

While Slovenia and Croatia found a solution by agreeing to resolve their dispute through international ad hoc arbitration, attempts to resolve the dispute between Skopje and Athens have so far produced no results.

Bilateral problems in the western Balkans do not stem from today. The relationships between the countries in the region were marked by a lack of trust during the former Yugoslavia times. This was mistrust was compounded by military conflicts during the 1990s.

Insisting on regional co-operation is a tool to motivate those countries to overcome existing bilateral problems. This kind of EU politics gave - more or less - good results until 2008.

In that year Kosovo declared independence, provoking some strong reactions from Serbia. No major conflict started but some embassies in Belgrade were set on fire, including the embassy of neighbouring Croatia. In the same year, Greek blocked the invitation to Macedonia to enter NATO and Slovenia stooped Croatian progress in EU accession talks, with the aim of obtaining concessions from Zagreb in a maritime border dispute.

Before 2008, the relationships between the ex-Yugoslav republics plus Albania were improving. Even relations between Serbia and Montenegro - put under strain when Montenegrins in a 2006 referendum decided after to split from Serbia, improved. The result was the signature of a Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) and multilateral agreements on energy and air transports among regional countries.

After Kosovo's declaration of the independence, the fact that five EU member states have not recognised the breakaway province, meant that good neighbourhood policy and regional cooperation was left as the only EU card to exercise pressure on Serbia.

The EU is asking Serbia to be more constructive towards Kosovo and to allow the participation of Pristina in regional co-operation and other forums.

The European Commission in its last "strategy paper" about the Western Balkans also stressed that "bilateral disputes and disagreements relating to Kosovo unduly affect regional cooperation. The normal functioning of important structures such as the CEFTA could be jeopardised, if present practice do not change."

Serbia reacted much more coldly towards ex Yugoslav republics that recognise Kosovo and have established diplomatic relations with Pristina, than to other countries in Europe. This is the case with Montenegro, Macedonia and Croatia. Kosovo has been a trigger for a new deterioration of relations between Zagreb and Belgrade.

There were some improvements in the relationship between Serbia and Macedonia despite Serbian foreign minister Vuk Jeremic's expression of support for Greece on the name dispute with Skopje. Serbian relations with Montenegro remain at a very low level.

It is as interesting as it is important for the region that Serbia and Croatia, according to EU diplomats, have a constructive role in connection to developments in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Some diplomats in the EU are worried that Ljubljana's behaviour towards Croatia and Greece's position on Macedonia created the basis for a very tricky precedent in the Western Balkans: using EU membership to obtain concessions from candidate countries.

That is why the EU has warned countries in the region to solve their bilateral disputes before they start negotiating EU membership. The fact is that, aside from the most difficult Kosovo issue and the longstanding Macedonian name dispute, there are also many other unresolved border issues questions between Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and they can be "activated" at will.

1 comment:

montenegro said...

great blog! I had no idea the situation was still so volatile, I guess EU membership or not the same undrelying issues are there.