The EU door is finally shut to the eastern hopefuls

By LBF Editors
Saturday, 10 Jul 2010

Printer-friendly versionSend to friend


Chancellor Angela Merkel has confirmed that the EU's eastern enlargement will be ended after Croatia joins the Union. The decision reflects an informal yet well-known Brussels consensus of long standing. Merkel's verdict was confirmed at a meeting of the Permanent Representatives Committee (COREPER) in June. Yet Serbia’s “pro-European” coalition still refuses to face the facts and act accordingly. It claims that Belgrade has not received any official or unofficial document to that effect. This may be true, but it is irrelevant; and invoking such “arguments” smacks of despair.

The Financial Times reported on June 11 (“EU suffers an extreme case of Balkan enlargement fatigue”), one little-noticed side effect of the Greek debt crisis is that it is playing into the hands of those who oppose enlarging the Union.  Western Balkan countries such as Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are queuing at the EU’s door, but only Croatia has any chance of membership:

Among the reasons is that Greece, the first Balkan state to enter the EU (in 1981), has been exposed as a country that not only ran ruinous and reckless fiscal policies for many years, but deceived its partners with false data in order to join the eurozone at the start of this decade… Some policy-makers in EU national capitals argue that this unhappy experience demonstrates that, when it comes to public probity, Balkan states are just not to be trusted.

They point to the fact that corruption, organized crime and judicial inefficiency remain serious problems in Bulgaria and Romania, two other Balkan countries, which entered the EU in 2007. Croatia, too, has problems in these areas, which is one of the reasons why Zagreb’s EU negotiations are taking longer than once expected.

Serbia’s entry into the EU, on the other hand, is to be postponed indefinitely.  It is not even a formal membership candidate.  Macedonia, by contrast, is an official candidate but cannot start its negotiations because Greece is blocking them over the long-standing name dispute.

The countries aspiring to EU membership have been diplomatically notified of the true score. The decision sparked panic among Serbian political leaders, because President Tadic’s policy is being destroyed and discredited. An additional sign of how things stand is that, after much deliberation, hand-wringing and years of misguided and contradictory policy initiatives, the European Union is still unable or unwilling to appoint an envoy to the Western Balkans. No definitive decision has been made and no names were formally proposed at Wednesday's last June’s EU Western Balkans Summit in Sarajevo. Long heralded as a move that will open a new chapter in the Balkan states’ EU aspirations, and speculation over possible candidates had been rife prior to Merkel’s bombshell.

With the EU still struggling with the institutional fine print of its foreign policy machinery, continued British pressure to name a special EU envoy for the Balkans is now seen as a non-starter by the UK’s continental partners. Diplomats in Brussels and other EU capitals say the idea, proposed by Britain’s new foreign secretary William Hague, is unpopular among other EU member states. “The appointment of a European special envoy for the Balkans is not foreseen in the Lisbon treaty, and the EU would contradict itself with naming one,” one EU diplomat said.

He recalled that Brussels strongly argued against a US demand for a special envoy last year, saying at the time the move would flag the Balkans as a crisis area, similar to the Middle East or Afghanistan. In the new European External Action Service, or EEAS, the all-EU diplomatic corps established by the Lisbon Treaty, an official will be in charge of the Balkans, but without the title of a special envoy. The real question remains what kind of title this official should have, how high in the hierarchy he will rank.

During the time in office of Ms Ashton's predecessor Javier Solana, Austrian diplomat Stefan Lehne oversaw Balkan affairs, ranking as senior advisor and Director of the Council's Directorate General for External and Politico-Military Affairs – a fairly low-ranking title. In addition, a taskforce for the Western Balkan was established, with Italian diplomat Mike Giffoni as chief and advisor to Mr Solana. When Mr. Lehne left office in 2008 to be a political director in the Austrian Foreign ministry and Mr. Giffoni became Italy's first ambassador in Pristina, they were not replaced at the same level.

This has meant that in the Council, the EU governments’ decision-making body, the Balkans have been given less prominent attention over the last couple of years. This development was compounded when Mr. Solana, who personally knew every political leader in the region, was replaced by Lady Ashton, who had to learn the names of some prime ministers and foreign ministers. In any case, appointing a special envoy for the Balkans would create just more confusion. Brussels already has Special Representatives in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia, plus Eulex [the rule of law mission] in Pristina, not to mention the chief of EU delegations in all Western Balkan countries.

Diplomats say it would be better appointing someone who co-ordinates all those EU officials on the ground and advises Ashton like Lehne and Giffoni advised Solana,” a Brussels-based Central European diplomat said. In any event, the profile of the EEAS official in charge of the Balkans is too low for the likes of Paddy Ashdown, former High Representative for Bosnia, ex-EU commissioner Chris Patten or Slovak foreign minister Miroslav Lajčak.