Nov 3rd 2005 | SKOPJE
From The Economist print edition
The countries of the western Balkans get nearer to Brussels
WHEN French and Dutch voters rejected the European Union constitution, the shockwaves were swiftly felt in the Balkans. In 2003 EU leaders had promised the region eventual membership. Was that promise now going to be broken? Surprisingly, several events in the past month suggest that it will be kept. Many years, and many pitfalls, lie ahead. But, despite resistance in some quarters, EU policymakers seem to have decided that it is better to have these countries inside the club, rather than causing trouble outside.
A look at the map explains why. In 2007 Romania and Bulgaria are due to join the EU, although that date may slip to 2008. The remaining Balkan countries will then be encircled by the EU. Unless they have a genuine prospect of membership, that could have serious consequences. With some 22m people penned inside a kind of poor Balkan reservation, inter-ethnic conflict, smuggling and organised crime would be certain to flourish. Compared with the cost of all that, EU membership might look quite cheap.
Following this logic, Croatia won the go-ahead for formal membership talks last month. A week later, Serbia and Montenegro began preliminary talks that should lead to eventual membership. On October 21st Bosnia was told that it too could begin preliminary talks. And next week the European Commission will give its opinion on Macedonia's application for membership.
It is no coincidence that these things are happening now. The decision on Croatia helped to win Austria round to the opening of talks with Turkey. Encouragement of Serbia was a way of counteracting the news that the United Nations secretary-general had been authorised to start talks on the future of Kosovo, whose population is over 90% ethnic Albanian. Kosovo looks set for some form of independence against Serbia's wishes; next year Montenegro may also hold a vote on independence. These events may be less unpalatable if Serbia sees EU membership ahead.
In Bosnia, Paddy Ashdown, the international pro-consul, says that a slew of much-needed reforms in the past two years were pushed through only because the country's leaders understood that they were the price of EU membership. A similar lure has worked in Macedonia. From the brink of all-out civil war in 2001, ethnic Albanians and Macedonians have worked together in government largely because of their common hopes of joining the EU. All sides are now praying that the commission will give a positive opinion and that, in December, EU leaders will award Macedonia its coveted candidate status. Yet most diplomats reckon that the Macedonians may get an amber not a green light—that is to say, a yes to candidacy but with no promise of a date to begin talks. And some EU countries are still against even this.
The experience of new countries in the EU is that the conditions of membership have been sufficiently tightly drawn to help transform them into modern states. This is the path that Balkan political leaders want to follow. But, just when they want it most, money to ease the pain of reforms in areas that need it, such as agriculture, may turn out not to be there.
The problem is that only countries that are officially candidates for membership are due to receive significant amounts of aid. According to the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based think-tank, aid to Bulgaria should rise from €300m ($340m) in 2003 to some €1.6 billion by 2009; but aid to Serbia, with a similar population, will drop from €240m to €117m in the same period. This, argues the think-tank, is the sort of short-term thinking that will do nothing to prevent the region—and the EU as a whole—from storing up more Balkan problems later on.