The European Parliament has voted in favour of Romania and Bulgaria joining the European Union in 2007 or 2008. The former Yugoslav countries to their west, Slovenia apart, are lagging far behind. But Serbia has been told that it too can start accession talks. The most contentious issue will be Kosovo
LESS than a year after taking in a gaggle of new members, the European Union (EU) has declared itself ready to absorb a couple more. On Wednesday April 13th, the Union’s parliament in Strasbourg voted by large majorities to allow both Bulgaria and Romania into the club, probably in 2007. The vote removes the final obstacle to the two Balkan countries signing accession treaties on April 25th and opens the way for a second wave of EU expansion into the former eastern block. Eight ex-communist countries (along with Cyprus and Malta) joined the EU in May last year.
Bulgaria and Romania are scheduled to join the Union on January 1st 2007, bringing the number of members to 27 and adding 30m to its population. But the date may be moved back by a year if they are slow to implement reforms demanded by the EU, thanks to “safeguard clauses” in their accession treaties. Both countries have to step up the fight against corruption and organised crime; reform their penal codes, environmental rules and competition policies; beef up border controls; and, in Romania’s case, offer more protection to minorities.
The eastern Balkan duo are now certain to gain entry to the EU well before the former Yugoslav countries immediately to their west (apart from Slovenia, which was one of last May’s joiners). But even in that battle-scarred region the news is encouraging. Almost 15 years after Yugoslavia began its descent into hell, there is a new determination, on the ground and in Brussels, to ensure that the countries of the western Balkans are heading for membership of the EU, rather than drifting further into isolation and poverty.
Confirmation of this came on Tuesday, when Serbia’s and Montenegro’s loose federation was deemed worthy, by an EU feasibility study, of starting accession talks. The study recognises that big reforms are under way in Serbia. But it also rewards the country for its co-operation with the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague. The government of Vojislav Kostunica, which came to power in March 2004, scoffed at the tribunal, which it saw as a kangaroo court for Serbs. Two years on, and it has been bundling indictees to The Hague as fast it can: over the past few months, 13 Serbs and Bosnian Serbs have been sent for trial.
Yet even with such a favourable feasibility study, Serbian leaders have no illusions. On March 17th Croatia, years ahead of Serbia in terms of EU membership, ran into the buffers: Brussels postponed entry talks because of the Croatian government's failure to arrest General Ante Gotovina. It has been made clear to Serbia as well that all indictees must leave for trial—including Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb wartime general.
For Serbia, war criminals may be the easy bit. More contentious is Kosovo. Technically, the UN-run province remains part of Serbia. But more than 90% of Kosovo’s 2m people are ethnic Albanians, who will settle for nothing short of independence. For six years Kosovo has lingered under UN control, as western policymakers hoped the problem would go away. But since March 2004, when ethnic Albanians rioted across the province, it has been clear that it will not.
In the next few months two reports on how Kosovo is doing will be presented to the UN Security Council. If they paint a generally positive picture, Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, will appoint a “status envoy”, who will shuttle between Belgrade and Pristina, the Serbian and Kosovan capitals, to talk over what is now being dubbed Kosovo’s “future”, not its “final status”. One possible candidate for the job is Giuliano Amato, a former Italian prime minister who chaired an international commission on the Balkans that this week released a report on the region’s future. The report advocates Kosovo’s independence, to be achieved in four stages.
Policymakers who deal with the Balkans believe that eventually Europe's politicians will realise that it is better to absorb and rehabilitate these countries than to leave them behind as destitute troublemakers
On Kosovo, at least, there are no longer any differences between Europe and America. Moreover, if prodded, Serbia and Kosovo’s Albanians could probably agree on large parts of a future constitution for Kosovo. The problem, says a Kosovar politician and analyst, Veton Surroi, will be what to write in the first article, which lays down whether Kosovo can be defined as an independent state or as part of Serbia. Since neither side will agree, American and EU diplomats are now mulling the idea of imposing a final status for Kosovo, without the full agreement of the parties. Such an imposed settlement might include several elements, such as that independence would be conditional for years to come, that NATO would stay to guarantee security, and that Serbian areas of Kosovo would be given a large degree of autonomy.
Bajram Kosumi, Kosovo’s new prime minister, says he objects to any conditions placed on Kosovo’s independence, as well as to the status envoy discussing anything about Kosovo’s final status with Belgrade. However, if these are the price to pay for Kosovo’s independence he is unlikely to scupper the deal. Serbia’s leaders say they will accept “more than autonomy but less than independence”. They also say that the imposition of independence would mean radical nationalists taking over in Belgrade and instability for decades to come. Yet this need not happen if the deal is so artfully crafted that it includes some compensation for Serbia: for instance, a fast track towards EU membership, meaning entry by 2014 or thereabouts, perhaps with Bosnia and Albania in tow.
EU ministers are suffering from enlargement fatigue and the possible failure of the Union’s new constitution. They do not want to deal with the former Yugoslavia. But policymakers who deal with the region believe that eventually the politicians will realise that it is better to absorb and rehabilitate these countries than to leave them behind as destitute troublemakers.