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Balkans: Worries Over EU Enlargement

French voters on 29 May rejected the proposed EU constitution by a clear majority, and Dutch voters did the same by an even larger margin three days later. Many people in countries hoping to join the EU fear that their chances of obtaining membership within a reasonable time frame have become slimmer as a result.

The failure of referendums on the EU constitution in two of the bloc's founding member countries sent the pundits scrambling for explanations. Whatever other conclusions they drew in each case, two points seemed clear to observers in the Balkans. First of all, "enlargement fatigue" had at least something to do with the outcome of the vote in both France and the Netherlands. Many commentators noted a general feeling in Western Europe that the EU had moved too far, too fast in 2004 in admitting 10 new members -- eight of which are former communist states in Eastern or Central Europe.

Second, many observers noted that the mood in the EU will in the future be less accommodating to new applicants despite reassurances by several officials in Brussels that nothing has changed as far as enlargement is concerned. Fears of possible negative effects of enlargement fatigue were evident in the media in Romania and Bulgaria, which hope to join the EU in 2007, and in Croatia, whose plans to start membership negotiations in early 2005 have stalled over the government's failure to find and arrest fugitive war crimes indictee and former General Ante Gotovina.

Turkey and Ukraine were widely mentioned as potential victims of enlargement fatigue, as were the countries of the western Balkans -- Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosova, Macedonia, and Serbia and Montenegro. Macedonia has formally applied to join the EU, although many in Brussels consider the move premature. Albania began negotiations for a Stabilization and Association Agreement over one year ago but has made little progress. Belgrade has only just gotten the green light to start talks leading to a Stabilization and Association Agreement. Bosnia is the only state in the region that does not yet have any formal legal agreement with the EU, and Kosova is waiting for the clarification of its status before it can begin formal contacts.

On 30 May, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Language Service noted that many of the region's leaders tried to put on a brave face following the French vote, but that the media and local experts were less sanguine. Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said stressed that "the idea of a united Europe is not under threat," adding that he does not expect the "result of the French referendum to have a negative impact on Croatia's accession." Serbian President Boris Tadic also took the position that "Europe will not be complete without the Balkans" regardless of what happens to the proposed constitution. He believes that "the French referendum...does not mean the end of integration but possibly a change of pace." Bosnian Foreign Minister Mladen Ivanic said that he does not "think that [the French vote] will have any direct, negative influence" on the speed of Bosnia's EU accession.

Croatian President Stipe Mesic and his Macedonian counterpart Branko Crvenkovski said in Zagreb on 1 June that the French vote will not affect their respective countries' membership bids. "We must meet the standards [the EU has set for us] and fulfill the preconditions awaiting our attention, and I hope that we will succeed in this," Mesic said. Crvenkovski commented that his country hopes for progress in its aspirations to join the EU and wishes Croatia the same in its endeavors, adding that "it is not in our interest that countries of the region stagnate or stop in the process of [European] integration."

But many other Europeans were less optimistic. Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka said that any further enlargement seems to be out of the question for the near future. "That is so obvious that you do not need diplomatic language to say so," he added.
Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka said that any further enlargement seems to be out of the question for the near future. "That is so obvious that you do not need diplomatic language to say so," he said.

Some politicians and experts in the western Balkans took a similar view, even though their countries are relatively small and would pose less of a challenge to the EU to integrate them than would, for example, Turkey or Ukraine. Daut Dauti, who is spokesman for Kosova's government, told RFE/RL that the French vote will probably cause the enlargement process for all Balkan countries to stagnate. Macedonian Professor Biljana Vankovska said that the most important effect of the failed referendum for her country might be to delay its accession process.

Some observers took a more philosophical approach. Milorad Zivkovic, who is the deputy chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Bosnian parliament's House of Representatives, expressed the view of many when he told RFE/RL that "we are so far away from [joining] the EU that this serious development [in France]...will not really speed up or slow down [our pace] in that direction." Serbia and Montenegro's Defense Minister Prvoslav Davinic said that Belgrade knows that it must improve its cooperation with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal if it wants to join the EU, but also that membership is so far away that Belgrade will have the Hague issue solved long before then.

Zivkovic also argued that the failure of the referendum will strengthen the hand of the region's Euroskeptics, even though they are relatively small in number in Bosnia. In a similar vein, Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic said that he fears that the French vote will embolden Serbia's numerous "anti-European forces."

Joining the EU is, in any event, an almost universally held aspiration throughout the region, because it is regarded as admission to the "rich man's club," gaining a seat at the table where important decisions are made, and a chance to receive abundant subsidies. But many observers would agree with Zivkovic that Brussels officials, who are often considered arrogant in the Balkans, are likely to have less political influence in that region now that it has been shown that there is a clear disconnect between the EU's political class and at least some member states' voters. On the day after the French referendum, the Bosnian Serb parliament rejected a police reform package that the EU demands. High Representative Paddy Ashdown vehemently denied that the Serbs were encouraged by the news from France, but many other observers did not share his view.

But at least one observer, Montenegrin Professor Srdjan Darmanovic, found something positive for his country in the failure of the referendum and, presumably of the EU constitution altogether. He noted that one of the beneficiaries of the constitution would have been EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, who was expected to become a powerful foreign minister under the terms of the constitution. He was the primary architect of the joint state of Serbia and Montenegro, which is unpopular in much of the small mountainous republic. The joint state came into being in early 2003 only as a result of strong EU pressure, and wags subsequently dubbed it "Solania."