The draft of the final declaration of the EU summit held in Brussels on 16-17 June made no specific mention of the accession plans of Croatia or Turkey and gave only tacit approval to Romania and Bulgaria's hopes for membership. People in the western Balkan countries are likely to regard this omission of more advanced candidates as a sign that their own EU aspirations are now on hold, if not altogether dead.
One of the casualties of the recent French and Dutch votes against the proposed EU Constitution appears to be the enlargement process, although few leaders were willing to say so in public at the summit. Unnamed diplomats from Luxembourg, which currently holds the EU chair, told reporters that the references to the four countries were omitted because enlargement was not a topic at the gathering, adding that the EU's policy on enlargement has not changed. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said Brussels will honor its agreements with the applicants. Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg pointed out that Bulgaria and Romania can count on accession because "the treaties have been signed [and] will be respected in full."
He also argued, however, that EU member states need time to "think about the rhythm and extent of enlargement. There is no conclusion on this point for the moment." French President Jacques Chirac also suggested that the EU might not be able to cope with additional members for a while.
The draft communique also said the future of the western Balkan states lies with the EU, but did not give any of them a timetable for further integration, adding that each country will be judged on its own merits. The text encouraged Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina to improve on their existing efforts toward European integration and stressed the importance of cooperating with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal. The declaration ruled out any return of Kosovo to the pre-1999 situation and added that the EU will accept no political solutions there imposed unilaterally or by force.
Unnamed diplomats said, however, that the membership prospects for all the Balkan countries could already be severely damaged as a result of the recent rejection of the proposed EU constitution by French and Dutch voters and the ongoing EU constitutional and budget crises. The summit did not include the customary meeting with heads of the candidate countries. Although the prime ministers of Turkey and Croatia were initially invited to meet EU leaders on 17 June, the meeting was called off in a move regarded as ominous by many observers in Zagreb.
In the days leading up to the summit, there were already hints of what was in the offing. At the EU foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg on 13 June, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner suggested it might be time for the citizens of the EU to "breathe" before proceeding with a new round of enlargement.
Rehn said at the same meeting that his "message to the peoples and governments of the western Balkans is that the stabilization and association process is on its rails, it is moving on." He added that "the door to the European Union is still open to those countries that meet the criteria of accession or association, depending on which stage they are in this process."
He nonetheless made it clear that Brussels is in no hurry to admit Croatia. "The commission is committed to the new membership of Croatia," Rehn said. "We have noted some progress as regards cooperation with the Hague[-based war crimes] tribunal. But it is clear that Croatia needs more time to achieve cooperation with the Hague tribunal." He suggested, however, that Croatia could start admission talks with the EU "on the day" that war crimes indictee and fugitive former General Ante Gotovina goes to The Hague.
Rehn sent a somewhat urgent signal to all applicants on 8 June, when he told "Spiegel-Online" that countries that want to draw closer to the EU should try to meet their prerequisites as soon as possible in view of the "enlargement fatigue" affecting much of the western European public.
At least one leader of a major EU member state indicated before the summit that he remains committed to enlargement, stressing that its benefits far outweigh its costs. During a joint news briefing with Macedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said in Berlin on 8 June that unspecified "populists" are seeking to destroy the EU by attempting to prevent the western Balkan countries from joining that body.
Asked if the EU can afford to fund further enlargement in that region, Schroeder replied: "Instability is much more expensive." He added that "you would be amazed if I told you how much the current situation in the Balkans with European soldiers costs." He argued that "Macedonia's example without any doubt...shows that the region's stability is linked to its European perspectives." He also warned that eliminating these "perspectives" would fuel instability in the region. At the same time, the chancellor refrained from naming concrete dates for the EU accession of the countries in the western Balkans.
The results of the Brussels summit indicated that Schroeder's pro-enlargement views are in the minority. Regional leaders were not slow in reacting to the unpleasant news but generally sought to put on a brave face. Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said in Brussels on 16 June that members of the European People's Party, which is a coalition of conservative parties active in European affairs, have given "full support" to Croatia's bid for EU membership. He added that negotiations could start now and last two to three years, during which time all outstanding problems between Zagreb and Brussels could be resolved.
Elsewhere in the Belgian capital, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said that the EU should not close it doors to the Balkan countries, adding that he will soon submit a "strategic plan" for Serbia and Montenegro to join the EU in 2012.
In Zagreb, Croatian President Stipe Mesic warned that negative signals from Brussels will "strengthen Euroskeptic and nationalist forces" in Croatia and the region.
It now remains to be seen what the impact of Brussels' cold shower will be in the Balkans. In a region where strength and the ability to translate wishes into action command respect, the EU's internal confusion and apparent repudiation by French and Dutch voters will be widely regarded as evidence of weakness, which invites contempt in most Balkan cultures. The EU will still be welcomed in the region as a source of funding, but its political admonitions are likely to fall on increasingly deaf ears.
By blocking the enlargement process, moreover, the EU has deprived itself of its most important "carrot" in influencing the region, namely the prospect of European integration, as Schroeder suggested. Carla Del Ponte, who is the Hague-based war crimes tribunal's chief prosecutor, said in Washington on 14 June that Brussels' insistence that cooperation with the tribunal will help determine whether former Yugoslav republics will progress in the EU admission process was the main leverage used on those states to get them to cooperate with The Hague.
She noted that the EU's decision on 15 March to postpone admission talks with Croatia was an effective wake-up call for the Zagreb authorities. But she might have added that, conversely, the absence of a clear prospect of admission is likely to weaken Brussels' ability to influence Croatia or any other country in the region.
This does not necessarily mean that the EU will give up or even scale down its ambitions in the region. Rehn told the EU foreign ministers on13 June that he finds it "desirable that also in the light of the forthcoming standards and status process of Kosovo that we could be able to start negotiations for a stabilization and association agreement with Serbia and Montenegro this autumn, so that these negotiations would be conducted in parallel with the status process of Kosovo."
For his part, EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana said: "When we talk about standards [in Kosovo], we are talking, in a different manner, about the rights of minorities. Therefore, all of those issues are going to be under a microscope of the European Union, to see how they develop." Solana stressed that the EU wants a "fundamental" role in determining Kosovo's future.
But the EU is not the only show in town. Denmark's Soren Jessen-Petersen, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosovo (UNMIK), told the Berlin-based daily "Die Welt" of 9 June that the EU's internal crisis is affecting the countries of the western Balkans. He stressed that Belgrade needs a clear "EU perspective" if the region is to become truly stable, adding that a similar perspective is crucial if Kosovo is to implement the international community's standards. He nonetheless added that the recent U.S. efforts aimed at resolving the status issue in Kosovo are welcome because "no problem" in the western Balkans can be solved without the full involvement of the United States. The Danish diplomat said that he wishes that Brussels were as involved in Kosova as much as Washington is.
Furthermore, the EU is hardly the only European actor in the Balkans. Germany, Austria, and Italy have strong ties to the region and continue to be influential as individual states. Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovenia are qualified to play special roles in the Balkans because they themselves are successful post-communist states. Matthias Rueb, who formerly covered the Balkans for the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" and is now that daily's Washington correspondent, noted in the 16 June issue of that paper that the EU's "identity crisis is likely to lead to a renaissance of...the national states in Europe."
Some people do not regard that as a bad thing at all. A central thesis of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's 2002 book "Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World" is precisely that nation states are and will remain the most serious factors in international politics. Referring to the Balkans, Thatcher noted in the book that "the European Union can never pursue sensible policies towards the countries of the Balkans for a very simple reason. The EU, or more precisely the class which rules it, cannot accept the validity of nationhood -- for that would be to make nonsense of the European idea itself. So rather than try to encourage nation states to develop and advance, the EU will always try to suppress or undermine them. This bodes ill everywhere. But particularly in the Balkans, it risks creating more intense and destructive -- because vilified and frustrated -- national passions."