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Don’t sideline EU enlargement 7 décembre 2011

Posted by Acturca in EU / UE, South East Europe / Europe du Sud-Est, Turkey-EU / Turquie-UE.
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The Wall Street Journal (USA) December 7, 2011

By Michael Leigh *

Stability in the Balkans may become the next victim of the euro crisis.

With citizens across the European Union either unemployed or concerned for the safety of their jobs, savings and pensions, leaders at the EU summit this Friday may have little appetite to tackle external issues. Stopping the carnage in Syria and supporting the pro-democracy movement in Egypt may well claim any attention that is not devoted to resolving the debt crisis.

But another question will be on the agenda, after inconclusive discussions among ministers on Monday. The treaty that will make Croatia the 28th member of the EU in July 2013 will be signed, and the European commission’s recommendations on moves toward membership for Serbia and Montenegro are up for discussion. Enlargement may be the EU’s most effective external policy, having already done much to make the Continent unified and free, but it is not exactly the flavor of the month in crisis-ridden Europe.

Yet security and stability in the Balkans cannot be taken for granted. For months Kosovo Serbs have barricaded roads in defiance of NATO forces because Pristina, the Kosovar capital, asserts its right to control the border with Serbia. Some barricades have at last started to come down under EU pressure, but the situation remains unstable. The north of Kosovo is becoming ungovernable, with Serbs there rejecting the authority both of Pristina and Belgrade. Bosnia-Herzegovina remains paralyzed because of ethnic conflict. There has been civil strife in Albania, and Macedonia’s EU and NATO prospects are blocked by the dispute with Greece over the country’s name.

This explosive mixture has been kept under control mainly because of the whole region’s ambition to join the EU. Most people in the Balkans still see EU membership as their countries’ path to salvation. They are not put off by the euro crisis, the effects of which so far pale by comparison with their own suffering during the dreadful wars of the 1990s. Likewise, in the Baltic, Latvians have proved far more willing than the Greeks to swallow the bitter medicine of austerity, which seems bearable compared with adversity under the Soviet Union.

Could stability in the Balkans be the next victim of the euro crisis? It does not have to be. Signing the accession treaty with Croatia will send a message to the whole region that, despite the euro crisis, the EU keeps its promises to countries that have made the necessary reforms.

That message should also be upheld for Serbia and Montenegro, the countries next in line. Montenegro has now met the EU’s key requirements to start membership talks, in areas like free and fair elections, media freedom, fighting corruption and preventing discrimination. It is a model of pluralism in a region where ethnic tensions run high.

Yet French President Nicolas Sarkozy is hesitating to agree to membership talks with Montenegro—enlargement remains a sensitive issue in France, and presidential elections are just five months away. Mr. Sarkozy also does not want to give the green light to tiny Montenegro so long as the EU path of Serbia, France’s chief Balkan friend, remains uncertain. This cuts right across the EU’s longstanding policy of negotiating with each country on the basis of its individual merits.

Serbia, the administrative heart of the former Yugoslavia, deserves to move up the queue because of the country’s notable progress in meeting EU standards for democracy and peace. Under pressure from the EU, Serbia has finally caught war criminals Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic and sent them to the Hague tribunal for trial. Serbia is the only EU applicant country to have reformed its court system and brought in independent judges before even starting membership talks. It has participated in eight rounds of EU-sponsored talks with breakaway Kosovo, reaching agreements on a number of practical measures related to border control, property, freedom of movement and customs procedures.

Why, then, is the EU hesitating to take the symbolic step of making Serbia an official candidate? To be sure, existing agreements with Kosovo need to be implemented, and there is a raft of other issues outstanding, such as the willingness of Serbs and Kosovars to sit down together in regional organizations working on energy, transport and trade. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel wants guarantees that Serbia is serious about reconciliation if candidate status is to be granted on Friday.

Mrs. Merkel is right to be using EU leverage to oblige Serbia to deliver. This is what the EU’s soft power is all about. There must be an end to violence in northern Kosovo and the remaining barricades must come down. Kosovo, too, needs to do more to enforce the rule of law and fight corruption.

But there is a risk that too much external pressure on Belgrade could halt or even reverse the recent momentum for reform. The EU would rue the day if former nationalist leader Tomislav Nikolic, campaigning on the government’s failure to achieve an EU breakthrough, defeats supporters of the reformist president, Boris Tadic, in parliamentary elections next May.

Serbia’s relegation to the sidelines would send ripples through a region that still considers EU membership, euro crisis notwithstanding, its best bet for the future. EU leaders should take some time out from their crisis talks on Friday to send a positive signal to a troubled region that is on their doorstep.

* Mr. Leigh is senior adviser to the German Marshall Fund and former director-general for enlargement at the European Commission.

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