The good, the bad and the ugly of a larger EU
The European Commission yesterday (12 October) recommended that Serbia should be recognised as a candidate for EU membership. But accession negotiations should not be launched until Serbia takes a more constructive attitude on Kosovo, it said.
The recommendation, which accompanied the Commission’s adoption of its annual progress reports on the nine countries currently bidding to join the EU, will provoke debate among member states, whose leaders are scheduled to decide early in December what action to take. Far less controversial is the Commission’s recommendation to open membership talks with Montenegro, which has earned the highest praise among the western Balkan states.
Štefan Füle, the European commissioner for enlargement and neighbourhood policy, who drafted the reports and made the recommendations, is caught between two political imperatives. The first is to keep the prospect of joining the EU alive for the nine applicants, in order to maintain incentives for domestic reform. This is especially important for countries whose accession is still far off. The second is to be tough on countries that fail to meet the requirements and that backslide on reform, by postponing their potential accession date. Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina have suffered this fate, because they recorded little reform progress over the past year.
But nowhere is Füle’s dilemma more pressing than in the case of Serbia. The Commission and the member states view it as a pivotal regional power.
Serbia’s importance has, in the past, prompted the EU to fudge its own condition of full co-operation with the UN’s war-crimes tribunal. With that issue resolved by the arrest of the two last fugitives – Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadžic – the EU is now gearing up (under strong pressure from Germany) to be tough with Serbia on its refusal to negotiate with Kosovo.
Füle thought that he had a compromise that was acceptable to the Germans: give Serbia candidate status – a critical issue for President Boris Tadic and his ruling Democratic Party ahead of a general election in the spring – but make actual negotiations conditional on good behaviour on Kosovo. But with Germany showing no sign of changing its stance and France, ahead of a presidential election next year, in no mood to push enlargement, this compromise could yet unravel when national leaders meet for their summit in December.
The European Commission is sending a nuanced message to Serbia with this year’s progress report. It is recommending to member states that the country should be granted candidate status, but that no date should yet be set for the start of accession talks. Serbia merits encouragement because, the report says, it has made good progress on most issues that are relevant to its bid to join the Union.
The country has demonstrated that it has the administrative capacity to cope with the demands of eventual membership of the EU, the report says, although it faces “major challenges” in implementing and enforcing legislation. This is especially relevant in the fields of the environment, agriculture and rural development, financial control, and justice and security. The Commission is also worried about a tense social climate, exacerbated by high unemployment following a sharp economic downturn.
The biggest problem is Kosovo, whose independence Serbia contests (together with five EU member states: Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain). Even if recognising Kosovo is not a formal precondition for joining the EU, Serbia is, like any aspirant, obliged to establish and maintain good relations with its neighbours. Until July, Serbia took a constructive attitude in talks with Kosovo that the EU was mediating. But when Kosovo tried to impose its authority over border crossings controlled by Serbs, Serbia walked out of the talks.
The Commission is hoping that talks will resume, driven by the eagerness of Serbia’s government – which faces a general election in the spring – to secure candidate status for the country. The Commission is therefore recommending that Serbia should be elevated to the rank of candidate if it returns to the talks with Kosovo. Actual membership negotiations will then require tangible progress in those talks on a number of issues, according to EU officials.
The past year has been difficult for the EU’s relations with Turkey, by far the biggest and most contentious of the nine countries currently bidding to join the Union.
Its accession talks began in 2005, at the same time as Croatia’s, but more than half of the policy chapters have been blocked, primarily because of the Cyprus conflict, but also because France refuses to negotiate on matters that imply that Turkey might actually join the EU. An approaching presidential election in France next year will do little to improve the atmosphere. The likely failure of reunification talks on Cyprus later this year might well put an end to the entire process of Turkish accession negotiations, and this prospect has prompted the European Commission to seek alternative arrangements to maintain bilateral relations.
But on the specifics of Turkey’s performance over the past year, the progress report is largely positive. A free and fair election in June returned the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party to power, for a third successive term. The government is reaching out to the secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in its bid to rewrite the constitution. The country’s economy is among the fastest-growing in the world, although the Commission is worried about external imbalances that could threaten macroeconomic stability.
Apart from the Cyprus issue, the Commission reserves its most critical language for Turkey’s performance on freedom of speech – an issue in which Štefan Füle has taken a strong personal interest. The Commission is very worried at a rising number of court cases against writers and journalists and restrictions on internet access.
The European Commission was unhappy with the conduct of parliamentary and presidential elections last year, which suffered from “serious shortcomings and allegations of fraud”. Nevertheless, the EU believes that Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi and his administration are genuine in their support for EU-related reform, having “started to address” the challenges the country faces.
The most tangible evidence of this has emerged in the EU-mediated talks with Serbia. In these discussions – which cover bilateral issues not directly linked to Kosovo’s disputed status as an independent country (which is not recognised by Serbia and five EU member states) – Kosovo has generally taken a constructive stance. The dialogue was broken off by Serbia after Kosovo tried to assert its authority over border crossings with Serbia in the Serb-controlled north.
New language on the difficulties in the north appears in the progress report: “It is important that Kosovo launches a comprehensive agenda for the north.” This puts responsibility on the government in Pristina for reintegrating the area – after the EU’s largest-ever civilian mission, Eulex, failed to ensure that Kosovo’s legal order was being applied there.
“It’s their job to win the hearts and minds of the Serbs [in the north],” a senior official said, adding that not all “parallel structures” – the public institutions financed by Serbia – would have to be dismantled. The official suggested that a model already existed in the Kosovo government’s work with ethnic Serb enclaves further south, where around half of Kosovo’s estimated 120,000 Serbs are believed to reside.
The report is scathing in its assessment of other issues facing the country. Kosovo has made “no progress” towards becoming a market economy, for example, and “serious challenges” remain in terms of organised crime and corruption, while public administration is “weak”.
Albania has made slow and uneven progress on 12 priorities that the European Commission outlined last year, and it cannot advance to candidate status before it tackles them more vigorously, according to this year’s report.
As in Bosnia, the main bright spot in Albania’s performance has been the lifting of EU visa requirements last December. This is a significant and direct benefit for many ordinary citizens, who no longer need to go through lengthy, expensive and often humiliating visa application procedures. But on the political level, the country remains polarised between supporters of Sali Berisha, the centre-right prime minister, and Edi Rama, leader of the Socialist opposition. The Socialists have ended their boycott of parliament, which they began after local elections in May were marred by irregularities. In principle, their return should allow the adoption of legislation required by the EU to proceed. Foreign ministers from Europe’s two main political families – Stavros Lambrinidis, a Greek socialist, and Franco Frattini, an Italian conservative – visited Albania in September to urge reconciliation, and the call appears to have had some effect.
“Essential steps” in reforming public administration have not been taken, and the judicial system needs to improve, the Commission report says. The fight against organised crime, meanwhile, has progressed, according to the report, though corruption remains a serious problem.
From quasi-rogue state to star pupil: that might be the summary of this year’s progress report on Montenegro, with only a little exaggeration.
The European Commission recommends that the member states should approve the opening of membership talks with Montenegro, after the country met seven key conditions set by the EU in the last report, and was accordingly granted candidate status.
The tiny Adriatic country of just over 600,000 people has taken “tremendous steps forward”, an official said, and will be the first candidate to follow the Commission’s plan to open negotiations on judicial issues early on. Negotiations are expected to start around mid-2012, if member states’ leaders endorse the Commission recommendation in December.
Combating corruption and organised crime remain challenges, although the report notes that the country’s track record in the field follows “a positive trend”.
Macroeconomic indicators are stable, but structural problems in the country’s economy persist, the report says; the business climate is affected by “lingering weaknesses in the rule of law”.
The Commission does not spell this out, but Montenegro’s overall standing has improved considerably with the replacement of Milo Djukanovic, a towering political figure for the past two decades, by Igor Lukšic, the new prime minister, who is a young reformist.
In its first progress report since the EU opened accession negotations with Iceland in June, the European Commission found the country to be “well advanced” in preparations for eventual membership. It acknowledged that “difficult negotiations” are likely on issues ranging from fisheries policy and whaling to taxation and food safety.
However, the report also notes that the real challenge with Iceland’s bid to join the EU is not its degree of technical preparedness, or political concessions in the negotiations, but the population’s ambivalence about membership, or what the reports refers to as “diverging views among the political forces and the population”. This reflects a worry that Icelanders, following completion of the accession talks, might reject membership in a referendum.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina has had a very bad year, and the Commission “struggled” to find something positive to put in its progress report, according to one official.
The one bright spot is the EU’s lifting of visa requirements last December – but even that happened a full year after the other western Balkan countries benefited from visa liberalisation (only Albania was as late as Bosnia).
More than a year after a general election, Bosnia is still without a government. In the Commission’s analysis, this is evidence of a lack of agreement on the “overall direction and future” of the country.
There is “serious concern” that Bosnia has not undertaken credible steps toward amending its constitution to eliminate ethnic discrimination that was ruled unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights in 2009.
Both a state-aid law and a census law, preconditions for Bosnia to apply for EU candidate status, remain blocked. Little progress has been made on strengthening the rule of law, with corruption a particular problem.
Frequent political attacks on the judiciary are cause for “serious concern”, the report says. Commitment to structural economic reform and sound public finances is “weak”.
The Commission’s positive opinion on Croatia’s accession given in this progress report was a formality, and few doubt that Croatia will join the EU on 1 July 2013, eight years after it opened membership talks.
The report does warn that some additional efforts are needed, for example in finalising the privatisation of Croatia’s crumbling shipyards or in building up a record of prosecutions for corruption.
The experience with Croatia has informed one policy change that Füle is pushing in his overall recommendations this year – that the negotiating chapters dealing with justice issues be opened early on in the process, and closed late. This, he argues, will allow candidate countries to build up a credible record.
Macedonia is “ready” to start accession negotiations, the Commission’s report finds, as it did last year. And just as last year, the finding remains moot as long as Macedonia and Greece fail to resolve the concerns that Greece has with Macedonia’s name, which it says implies territorial designs on a Greek province of the same name.
Macedonia held parliamentary elections in June that met international standards. But the government needs to work harder on reforming the judiciary and combating corruption, the report says. The Commission is also worried that freedom of the press might be under attack.
Joost Korte, a Dutch official who is currently a director in the Commission’s secretariat-general, has been appointed deputy director-general for enlargement. The date of his move has not yet been fixed. He will replace Stefano Sannino, who was promoted to director-general after the retirement of Michael Leigh.
Before joining the secretariat-general as an adviser, Korte was head of the private office of Danuta Hübner, the commissioner for regional policy from 2004-07. He was deputy head of the private office of Chris Patten when he was European commissioner for external relations from 2000-04.
He had previously also worked in the private office of Leon Brittan, advising him on agriculture and trade issues, when Brittan was commissioner for trade from 1993-99.
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