By Nicholas Wood International Herald Tribune
FRIDAY, JUNE 17, 2005
ZAGREB, Croatia As leaders of the 25 European Union countries opened a summit meeting in Brussels on Thursday, concern rose across southeastern Europe - home to seven potential new members - that EU enlargement might be sacrificed due to the current crisis.
While few senior politicians in the Balkans have voiced their concerns in public, analysts and senior government officials say that denial or postponement of EU membership could derail reforms and promote instability in a region that is still recovering from war.
Romania and Bulgaria, which were refused EU membership when the first wave of former communist states joined last year, were warned last week that their expected entry date of Jan. 1, 2007, could be set back. The warning followed French and Dutch rejection of the European constitution, with voters expressing fears about EU expansion.
Olli Rehn, the EU's enlargement commissioner, told reporters this week that the warnings had been issued due to the slow pace of reforms in Bulgaria and Romania, particularly in the judiciary, and the need to enforce anti-corruption measures there.
The warnings shocked EU advocates in both countries and caused consternation among some Western leaders.
On Thursday, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany cautioned in Berlin "against telling Romania and Bulgaria, with whom we have concluded treaties, that, because the referendums in France and the Netherlands didn't go as Europeans hoped, we're sorry and we can't fulfill those commitments.
"I say that," he told the Bundestag, "because the certain consequence in these countries would be the return to old-style nationalism, loss of economic opportunities and therefore more, not fewer, problems for Europe, and Germany too."
Prospects are no better elsewhere in the Balkans. Croatia has been hoping to start membership negotiations within the next few months, pending the arrest of a major war crimes suspect wanted by the international criminal tribunal for former Yugoslavia. Three more ex-Yugoslav states - Serbia and Montenegro, Bosnia, and Macedonia - as well as Albania have declared their desire to join, but remain far from starting membership negotiations.
On Thursday, the Serbian prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, urged EU countries to not close the door to the Balkan countries. Speaking in Brussels, he said he was submitting a strategic plan in Belgrade on Friday that maps out his plans for Serbia and Montenegro to join the EU in 2012.
Rehn said the EU would honor existing commitments to candidate countries but struck a cautious tone on starting accession talks with others.
"We are concerned about the worries of our citizens and therefore we have to be cautious regarding taking any new commitments in the field of enlargement," Rehn said, adding however that "we are not taking any sabbatical from our work for security and stability in the western Balkans."
His comments came a day after the new French prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, called for a freeze on enlargement after the planned accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, arguing that existing members should integrate and consolidate their union before admitting others.
The president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, on Wednesday announced that the commission would draw up a strategic roadmap on the EU's future direction, including its future borders. He said that existing commitments would be kept.
Regional analysts argue that the prospect of EU membership is the main incentive to political and institutional reform in the Balkans.
In Macedonia and Kosovo, where civil conflicts were raging only a few years ago, the EU is seen as the sole framework able to guarantee peace.
Thus it was with alarm that policy makers across the region have received the latest comments, including a declaration by the EU's external affairs minister, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, on Tuesday that enlargement should be slowed down in order to give the bloc's current citizens "time to breathe."
"More negative signals from the European Union that it has to slow down or back off from enlargement would have a damaging effect," said Tomislav Jakic, chief foreign policy adviser to the Croatian president, Stipe Mesic. "They would strengthen euroskeptic and nationalist forces who are already opposed to European policy in southeastern Europe."
In Romania, Foreign Minister Mihai-Razvan Ungureanu said before the Brussels summit opened that membership in 2007 remained "achievable." But opposition figures and commentators seized on Ungureanu's comments, saying that those who refused to see a crisis over enlargement were suffering from "political myopia."
In Bulgaria, politicians have been competing to prove their pro-European credentials ahead of parliamentary elections on June 25, and commentators say that public awareness that membership may be set back is low.
"Everything is under control," Meglena Kuneva, minister for EU affairs, said recently, warning that Bulgarians could get the wrong message from the current EU debate and think it was no use trying for membership.
Although countries in the western Balkans are farther from membership, analysts say they stand to suffer the most if enlargement is slowed. While the EU has served a motor for political and economic reform in eastern Europe, it is seen as critical to preventing further conflict in former Yugoslavia.
Over the last four years, since the last ethnic conflict in the region, analysts say, the EU has helped erode nationalist ideologies that broke the region apart.
Hard-line politicians still promote visions of monoethnic states such as a "Greater Serbia" or "Greater Albania," but the prosperity offered by the EU has proved much more attractive, with opinion polls showing widespread support for EU membership across former Yugoslavia. The promise of the EU integration is also the main incentive for co-operation between countries in the region and the war crimes tribunal in the Hague.
Were the EU to rule out integration of the western Balkans, "its policy in the region would disintegrate" said Gerald Knaus, policy director of the European Stability Initiative, a policy think tank based in Berlin. "The legitimacy of our intervention in the region is completely underwritten by taking steps toward the European membership."
"The European Union must remember its responsibilities in this respect," said Misha Glenny, a historian and journalist specializing in the region. "If the western Balkans fall from the EU's plan for integration, it will increase the chances, which are currently remote, of ethnic conflict in the region."
Katrin Bennhold contributed reporting from Brussels.