Saturday, February 18, 2006

Hopeful Words on European Union Expansion in the Balkans

By NICHOLAS WOOD
LJUBLJANA, Slovenia, Feb. 17 — During his tour of the Balkans, the first by a president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso on Friday affirmed the European Union's commitment to expanding to include the entire region.

In a visit that began Wednesday in Croatia and continued to Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia, Mr. Barroso, a former Portuguese prime minister, repeatedly outlined a future in which every Balkan country could be granted membership. Albania and Bosnia were also on the itinerary.

"You are a European country, and you should have a European future," Mr. Barroso said at a news conference in Belgrade, Serbia, on Thursday.

His comments were a change of tone for a region where visiting politicians focus more on the hurdles preventing the various nations from gaining European Union membership — most notably the lingering nationalism left from the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and the failure of states to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

"I did not come to Belgrade to talk about the Hague tribunal alone," Mr. Barroso said at the Belgrade news conference. "The future of Serbia, whose perspective is within Europe, is much more important, and if there are obstacles to this they should be removed."

He later traveled to the capital of Macedonia, Skopje, before going to Albania and Bosnia, accompanied by the European Union enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn. They made the trip nearly a year after the European constitution was voted down in referendums in France and the Netherlands.

The western Balkans lag far behind their former Communist neighbors on the road to European Union membership. If Romania and Bulgaria join the union in 2007 as expected, the western Balkans will be surrounded by European member states, including Greece, Hungary and Slovenia.

But just two Balkan countries, Croatia and Macedonia, are officially recognized as candidates and none of the five states (Kosovo is technically still a province of Serbia) have a clear timetable for possible membership.

Officials said the visit by Mr. Barroso was meant to help prepare the ground for a conference in Salzburg, Austria, on March 10 to discuss a regional free-trade zone and a better visa system for students.

In Serbia, delegations over the past two weeks have criticized the government for failing to find the war crimes suspects Radovan Karadzic, the wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs, and his military commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic. They have also warned that Serbia faces the permanent loss of Kosovo, which is now administered by the United Nations. Talks on the future of the province are to start Monday in Vienna.

"The sense of this whole visit is more of a carrot than the stick we have seen in the last two weeks," Bratislav Grubacic, editor of the VIP agency, a center for political analysis in Belgrade, said in a telephone interview.

European Union officials said Serbian officials, who have started negotiations on a Stabilization and Association Agreement, a contractual arrangement that offers incentives and sets political and economic conditions for entry into the union, could see those talks suspended this month unless cooperation with the war crimes tribunal improved.

Mr. Grubacic said Mr. Barroso appeared to be trying to shift public opinion in the region in favor of European membership at a time when the potential for increased nationalism was high, because of the talks over Kosovo.

Mr. Barroso's tour was welcomed by the European Stability Initiative, a political research group that monitors the bloc's policy toward the region. Its director, Gerald Knaus, described Mr. Barroso's statements as encouraging for those who see European Union membership as a key to political and economic stability.

But he said the commission's message was not being matched by member states, many of which remain ambivalent about having countries in the region join the union. Russia, Mr. Knaus said, will soon have a better visa system with the European Union than the western Balkans, and North African countries have better access to European textile markets.

"In substantive terms, and not rhetoric, it is not encouraging," Mr. Knaus said in a telephone interview from Istanbul.

1 comment:

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