Will the former Yugoslav Republics abuse the EU to solve their bilateral conflicts?Feb 23rd, 2011 | By Kamiel Mesie | Tags: Accession, Enlargement, Former Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Serbia
In December 2008, the negotiation talks on Croatia’s accession to the European Union that had been well established for over three years came to a sudden halt. Reason for this was a veto from Croatia’s neighbour and former fellow in the Yugoslav socialist republic, Slovenia, about a border dispute in the Adriatic Sea. The Slovenian Government did not wish to continue the negotiations as long as the border dispute was not resolved. Although a swift and smooth accession of Croatia into the EU was strongly supported by practically all EU member states, Slovenia chose to use its veto power in the Council of the European Union to resolve an essentially bilateral issue, and the process of Croatian accession lay quiet for almost a year.
Considering the objective of the European Union to largely remove national borders and create an open market, it seems somewhat of a paradox or even slightly absurd that border demarcation has been made into such an issue, while the negotiations actually dealt with making these borders less significant. However, this example once again illustrates the importance countries still attach to geo-political issues, and this may even be particularly the case in the West Balkan region. It is well understood that for several hundreds of years the West Balkans has been a highly complex region, made up of many territories with several different nations, cultures and religions living in a confined area next to each other. After the iron grip by which Josip Tito suppressed all forms of nationalism and the subsequent dissolution of Yugoslavia, violent wars broke out among the former Yugoslav republics. The dreadful result is that the west Balkan region has seen the most bloodshed in Europe since World War II, with some minor hostilities continuing even to this day.
It is a very positive development that the former Yugoslav republics now want to come to terms with their violent past and seek for a brighter future through the process of European integration. Almost all west Balkan countries now have applied for EU membership, are already member or candidate member or have a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU. However, the earlier mentioned incident of the Slovenian blockade to Croatian membership is very worrying, since this type of problems could become illustrative for further EU enlargement on the Western Balkans. Bilateral conflicts between member states and associate or candidate member states might not only disrupt EU enlargement, they may also stall the entire European decision making process and affect the Union’s credibility towards the world as well as to the ever increasing number of euro sceptic citizens.
Given the violent history of the western Balkan region and the relative lack of reconciliation, the problems to be expected are ample. Croatia may become a full EU member this year already; Serbia is likely to become an official candidate member this year and might join the EU as soon as in 2014. Serbia and Croatia have a number of border disputes over some islands in the Danube River. Croatia also has border disputes with Bosnia Herzegovina, a country that is engaged in Associate Agreements with the EU, but which is currently still divided between two completely separated governing entities. Society here is still largely divided between Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs and tensions between these groups are high. Apart from the border dispute with Croatia, Serbia has an ongoing conflict over Kosovo. Kosovo is recognized by Serbia as an integral part of its territory, but a self proclaimed independent country with its own independent ambitions to become an EU member. Tensions between Serbs and Albanian Kosovars are extremely high and occasional violence at the Kosovar border is still reported. Furthermore, the Belgrade Government contends the scope of the EULEX police mission to Kosovo and has a disagreement with the UN Special Envoy Martti Ahtisaari’s status proposal over the mission.
The Serbian Government has repeatedly stated that its policy towards the status of Kosovo should not be linked in any way to Serbian accession to the EU. Serbia in this respect feels backed by the international community which is largely divided on the issue, as is the EU itself. As long as Spain, Greece, Slovakia and Romania refrain to recognise Kosovo’s independence, the EU is deemed to be strictly status-neutral on the issue.
If Serbia will become EU member without the Kosovo question adequately addressed, what will be the position of Kosovo? Will it be in the EU as a rebellious province of Serbia or will it be a political non-space similar to Northern Cyprus? Much of the problems concerning Serbian accession to the EU are currently overshadowed by the question of Serbia’s commitment to the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia) and the arrest of Ratko Mladić. Without doubt the EU’s demand of full cooperation to the Tribunal is very important in the light of reconciliation and peace building in the region. Nevertheless, the Kosovo issue is of no less importance. The EU should make much clearer that Serbian membership will not be realistic without Belgrade’s recognition of Kosovo as an independent state. Commitment to the ICTY may be an important precondition; it is certainly not the only problem that needs to be solved.
In the future, the Copenhagen criteria as an instrument for membership eligibility should perhaps be broadened. They should include a benchmark for good neighbourhood relations and a commitment to constructive bilateral relations and behaviour towards other member states. Learning from the negative experience in Croatia’s negotiations, bilateral disagreements should be resolved prior to the onset of official candidate negotiations. Likewise, the complicated situation of Northern Cyprus that has become internationally isolated since the accession of the South in 2004 should teach us that disagreement over the status of a territory is likely to create problems in international relations. The EU should send out a clear message that bilateral issues should be solved bilaterally and that states should not use the Union as an instrument by playing EU membership as a trump card.
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