BRUSSELS -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel made headlines last week when she said that the EU needs to "consolidate" before the bloc can take on new members.
The only exception, she said, would be Croatia, which is expected to finish accession talks with Brussels at the end of the year.
Merkel's words were followed by action. On the same day as her remarks, Berlin put the brakes on Montenegro's EU bid. That country submitted its membership application in December 2008. EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on March 16 were set to ask the European Commission for a check of Montenegro's readiness to become a candidate.
The move is usually considered a mere formality, but Germany blocked the process, indicating it was a political step Berlin was not ready to take.
This appears to be a setback not only for Montenegro, but for all the Western Balkans countries that are hoping to become members of the EU in the coming years, as well as their supporters -- the European Commission, the Czech rotating EU Presidency, the upcoming Swedish EU Presidency (July-December 2009), and some other EU member states.
But the European Council -- which groups the heads of government and state of all EU members -- has committed itself repeatedly to keeping its door open to the countries of the Western Balkans. Two days after Merkel's comment, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana reminded the bloc of that promise.
"Always have in mind a principle: the perspective for all the countries of the Western Balkans to be part of the European Union is open. Nobody has changed that policy," Solana said. "That policy was already decided at the summit in Zagreb [in November 2000], a long time back, and nobody has changed it."
Indeed, EU foreign ministers are meeting in the Czech Republic
on March 27-28 with representatives from Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Croatia to discuss their EU perspectives.What Does Berlin Believe?
Merkel's statement, however, has raised many questions.
How serious is the German chancellor in her push to stop, at least temporarily, the integration of the Western Balkan countries into the EU? Does her statement mean that German policy has changed? Is Berlin now opposed to any further enlargement?
We did not say that countries should never again be accepted for membership.
German analysts are downplaying Merkel's remarks. Rather than signaling a fundamental policy shift, they argue the chancellor's statement is meant for domestic consumption ahead of a series of elections later this year.
"Angela Merkel's statement can only be understood against the background of the upcoming elections," says Solveig Richter, a Balkans expert at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, the Berlin-based German institute for international and security affairs. "There will be the European Parliament elections [in June], and there will be federal elections in Germany [in September]. What Merkel has said is a clear statement about an electoral program."
Merkel in fact made her controversial statement during a Europe congress of her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). In its program for the European elections, the party is "advocating a phase of consolidation, during which the strengthening of the EU's identity and institutions take precedence over further EU enlargement."
According to Richter, it is too early to judge whether Merkel's statements signal a policy change or not.
"It remains to be seen whether these statements made by Chancellor Merkel -- which are clearly aimed at the elections -- will have consequences after the elections," Richter says. "Whether Germany will take such a hard line; how this will be coordinated with the European partners; and whether other member states will agree with this line, or whether they will be able to exert a moderating influence on this position."
For Gerald Knaus from the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based think tank, there is not yet any visible change in Berlin's policy on EU enlargement. The CDU, he says, is merely voicing the general skepticism in Berlin about letting new members in. More Thorough Procedure
A widespread view in Germany, according to Knaus, is that Bulgaria and Romania were allowed to enter the EU too fast, and that the procedure for any future enlargement would have to be much more thorough.
In light of this, Berlin would be reluctant to put new countries like Montenegro on a track seen as automatically leading to membership.
Knaus says a real policy change, however, would be if Germany would permanently block the start of the process by not allowing the European Commission to prepare an opinion on Montenegro's accession.
"If Germany blocks this, than it would be understood in the region not as a process of enforcing strict conditionality, but as effectively sabotaging the accession process," Knaus says.
But Knaus says this is very unlikely to happen.
According to a source close to the government, it would be wrong to assume that Merkel's statement and Berlin's delaying of Montenegro's bid were guided by a coherent new German policy approach.
The chancellor's statement, the source says, is part of the campaign process, while Germany's reluctance to allow Montenegro's application to the commission to go forward is caused by Berlin's caution in enlargement issues. Both issues have to be seen as separate.'Not Be A Closed Shop'
Merkel herself has underscored that the EU's door remains open -- at least in principle.
"We did not say that countries should never again be accepted for membership," she told journalists after the CDU's Europe congress. Europe, she added, "will not be a closed shop."
And following the European Council's meeting in Brussels on March 19-20, both Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier reiterated, in general terms, support for the Western Balkans' EU perspective.
As far as Montenegro is concerned, it seems that there will be an agreement on proceeding to the next step, possibly as early as April. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn is optimistic.
"I trust that the EU member states will deal with this according to the renewed consensus on enlargement, which is the basis of the EU's enlargement policy as decided in December 2006, and subsequently in the European Councils ever since," Rehn says.
But the real test, Knaus says, is yet to come. Whether there is a change in German enlargement policy will be visible soon, when other Western Balkans countries are going to submit their applications.
"The German position is going to be put to a real test. It's not just Montenegro," Knaus says. "Albania is going to submit an application in the next few weeks or months -- either in April or in June. That's for sure. And Serbia is going to submit an application also, likely, sometime this year."
The Swedish EU Presidency starting in July will be very supportive of membership applications from the Western Balkans, Knaus says, much as the current Czech Presidency has been. And the EU commission is also pushing hard for the door to remain open.
"We cannot take any sabbatical," Rehn said a day after Merkel's statement. Enlargement, he added, is "an anchor of stability in Southeastern Europe. We should not shake this anchor."