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EU: Can Brussels Stay Focused On The Balkans?


By Breffni 0'Rourke

European Union leaders meet Balkan leaders next week (21 June) at the EU's Thessaloniki summit for a gathering that should usher in a new phase in mutual relations. The gathering is the culmination of the six-month presidency of the EU by Greece, which has sought to build new bridges between the EU and the volatile Balkan region. But amid so many other developments, can the EU stay focused in the coming years on stabilizing the region?

Prague, 11 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The absence of war is not peace. But an uneasy calm is preferable to actual fighting.

Take the Western Balkans, a volatile constellation of five small countries on the doorstep of the European Union. Battered by a series of armed conflicts in the last decade, the region is still not secure against a resurgence of ethnic strife.

With this in mind, Greece, which currently holds the European Union Presidency, is striving to use the resources of the EU to create real peace and stability in the region. Croatia, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia and Montenegro all lie scattered like bright gems around the Adriatic Sea. Too often, however, their brilliance has been dulled by conflict.

Next week, leaders of the 27 European Union member and candidate states will meet Balkan leaders for what is hoped will be the start of a road to enduring stability for the Balkans.

It won't be easy.

Roussos Koundouros, a spokesman for the Greek presidency, said the enlarging European Union must take up its responsibilities. "The EU has a special responsibility and has made a commitment to help these [Balkan] countries integrate with the EU, further integrate, with the perspective of them becoming members when the time is right," he said.

Koundouros said Greece wants existing links between the EU and the Balkans, such as association and stabilization agreements, strengthened. "We thought of borrowing elements from the experience the EU gained while negotiating with the 10 acceding countries and adding them to our relations with the five countries of the Western Balkans," he said.

He explains this will include opening participation in various EU programs to the five nations, plus introducing the twinning mechanism so as to help those countries adapt their administrations to European standards. Athens also foresees hundreds of millions of euros in extra aid money. It wants agreement on these measures at the Thessaloniki summit.

Koundouros said the countries of the region will, of course, have to "do their part" to prepare their political and economic structures for EU membership.

His remarks echo those of Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, who said last month that the Balkan states should maintain the momentum of reform to dispel EU doubts about the pace of enlargement.

Papandreou referred to a phenomenon among existing members that he called "enlargement fatigue," and he said the EU states must be convinced the Balkans are doing enough to prepare themselves if they are to take the membership bids seriously. The fight against organized crime is a particular priority.

The Greek presidency of the EU is ending now, but the spokesman said it's "essential" for the EU to remain focused permanently on this region. "Greece, of course, has a special responsibility concerning its immediate neighbors. We will certainly be an advocate of closer links with the EU. We believe that what we are doing now is in the interests of the EU as a whole. We should not forget that these are European countries and that Europe will never be complete without their accession," Koundouros said.

Not all political analysts believe the road ahead will be smooth. London-based analyst Heather Grabbe of the Center for European Reform told RFE/RL other matters are pressing on EU leaders, and they may not be able to stay focused on the Balkans. "The Balkans are not top of the agenda for any EU leaders at the moment," she said. "They are much more bothered about things like trans-Atlantic relations and other matters, and I think that is a problem in itself."

Grabbe said one dilemma for the EU is the time scale for prospective membership for the Balkan countries. The EU will be preoccupied for years to come absorbing the 10 new mainly Central and Eastern European members, plus -- in the mid-term -- Bulgaria and Romania.

However, Croatia has already filed an application for membership. Should it have to wait for the other countries of the region to catch up? "Should Croatia have to wait for the other countries of the former Yugoslavia? That's the big question for the EU at this point," Grabbe said. "Is it better to have a regional approach, or is it better to admit countries one by one? And that's very tricky because it's a big dilemma in policy for the EU, whether it's better to stick to the principle of encouraging regional integration and sub-regional groupings first, with a view to acceptance later, or whether to take applications on their merits."

In an interview this week with the "Financial Times," Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski compared the coming Thessaloniki summit with the 1993 Copenhagen summit at which the EU set out the political and economic criteria for former Soviet bloc states to join. That expansion should come to pass next year.

Both the Balkan states and the EU itself have cause to hope any further expansion to include the Balkans will go as smoothly.

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