Dominic Swire in Belgrade -
In keeping with its pledge to focus on the Western Balkans, the Czech EU Presidency has confirmed to bne it will accept Serbia's application for official EU candidate status should it arrive, as expected, in the first half of 2009. However, long-held grudges and bickering are likely to present problems for the accession process of other countries in the region.
For several weeks now, there have been noises out of Belgrade suggesting that Serbia plans to apply to become an official candidate member of the EU during the Czech presidency, which runs for the first six months of 2009. Indeed, speaking at a recent roundtable discussion in Vienna about the future of Serbia, Economy Minister Mladen Dinkic confidently declared that Belgrade would be granted not just candidate status in 2009, but also inclusion on the so-called white Schengen list, which would abolish the need for Serb citizens to apply for visas to visit the EU.
"If Serbia bids for the candidacy, we will accept its bid," Zuzana Opletalova, a spokesperson for the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs told bne. However, she added the caveat that, "the resulting attitude of other member states and the subsequent speed of the process is a different question."
Opletalova is alluding to the fact that even if Serbia's bid was accepted, it wouldn't mean much until the Stabilisation and Association Agreement, which provides the framework for negotiations with the EU, is ratified by all the EU's 27 member states. Currently, Holland and Belgium are holding back on this until they receive confirmation that Belgrade is cooperating fully with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and arrests the remaining war crimes fugitives Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic.
Notwithstanding the obstacles ahead, Prague's decision is evidence of the massive transformation that Serbia has undergone over the last 12 months. At the start of 2008, many observers feared the country could see a return of nationalist politics and a descent into chaos following the expected declaration of independence from Kosovo.
As it turned out, however, 2008 could not have gone better for Serbia's pro-EU forces, who not only won both presidential and parliamentary elections, but also saw the dissolution of the main opposition following the shock resignation in September of the acting leader of the ultranationalist Radical Party, Tomislav Nikolic. On top of this, the year saw one of the world's most wanted men Radovan Karadzic arrested and, although there were some violent scenes in Belgrade following Kosovo's declaration of independence, the Serbian government decided to fight this peacefully and legally by taking the case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Last year was "extremely important because it was the year in which we maintained a pro-EU orientation under very difficult circumstances," the director of Serbia's EU Integration Office, Milica Delevic, told bne. "If you look back to 2007, everybody was afraid of what was going to happen within Serbia, within the region and how we would be affected by the expected unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo."
Delevic hopes that the momentum from 2008 can be continued this year under the Czech and then Swedish EU presidency, so that "by the end of 2009, the whole of the region will be closer to the EU than it is now, and 2009 will cease being a period of stability in the region, but rather a period of association and accession to the EU."
Whether this happens remains debatable. The two countries in the Western Balkans most advanced on their journey towards EU accession are the official candidate states Croatia and Macedonia. Yet both have some serious hurdles to jump in order to further the process.
In Macedonia's case there is the longstanding dispute with Greece over the name of the country. Greece objects to its neighbour calling itself Macedonia, because they believe it implies a territorial claim over a region of Greece with the same name. The impasse reached a new low in April 2008 when Athens carried out its threat to veto Macedonia's Nato membership. The Greek foreign ministry has said it will also block Macedonia's accession to the EU until a solution of the name issue has been found. UN-sponsored talks are set to continue this year, but a resolution doesn't seem close.
Croatia, a country that has for many years been tipped to become the next member of the EU, now has a problem on its doorstep with neighbour Slovenia, which has threatened to block all further accession talks due to a long-running border dispute between the two states. "I cannot see Croatia continuing its negotiations without prior resolution of the border dispute, or at least without having a process in place to resolve it," Slovenian Foreign Minister Samuel Zbogar told the press in January. "If there is no progress, I don't see Croatia joining the EU."
And all this ignores the paradox of Kosovo, which most EU member states recognise as an independent country, yet the EU has repeatedly insisted is not an issue with regard to Serbia's accession. Long term, when Kosovo is eventually ready to join the EU, it would have to do so either as part of Serbia or as an independent state. Keeping both Pristina and Belgrade happy in this regard would seem to defy logic.
Exactly how these issues are resolved remains to be seen, but EU officials know failure to solve the problems on its own doorstep risks losing credibility on the world stage.
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