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Balkans: The Dimming 'European Perspectives'

Children playing in downtown Belgrade Signs are increasing that one of the casualties of the EU's current crisis will be its expansion into the western Balkans. It is not clear whether all concerned have faced up to the implications of such a development.

The EU has entered into what many consider the most profound crisis in its history. The defeat of the proposed constitution in referendums in France and the Netherlands and the subsequent failure of the member states' leaders to agree on a budget have led to much soul-searching throughout the bloc.

French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker have called for a period of reflection with the apparent hope that the "deepening" of the EU that they regard as a natural and inevitable process will resume once emotions have cooled down in a year or two. They regard the constitution as essential and the French and Dutch votes as a temporary setback to be undone at some future point when voters in those countries will perhaps be given a fresh opportunity to "get it right." On 29 June, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin published an article in several European dailies in which he called for launching a fresh batch of political projects almost as though the French and Dutch votes had not taken place. Some other prominent figures have suggested that selected parts of the constitution could be put into force without further ado or voter approval.

Some other leaders, such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose country replaces Luxembourg in the rotating EU chair on 1 July, have suggested that the current crisis indicates that the EU has reached a dead-end in its existing course and must rethink some fundamentals if it is to survive and prosper. Blair calls, for example, for turning away from agricultural subsidies -- which consume 40 percent of the EU's budget and benefit primarily French farmers -- and other forms of redistributing wealth and instead reorienting the bloc toward promoting growth, technological development, and innovation. He does not share Chirac's and Schroeder's hopes for transforming the EU into a super-state that can take on major international roles and rejects their charge that the only alternative to the super-state is a free-trade zone. Others, such as Czech President Vaclav Klaus, have made it clear that they consider the draft constitution already a dead letter that should be treated accordingly and forgotten.

Enlargement Stalls

As the debate over the EU's future takes shape, many of the participants have addressed the question of enlargement. Some people believe that all enlargement must be put on hold until the EU clarifies several fundamental points regarding its scope and purpose. Chirac, moreover, has said that there is no legal basis for integrating new members without the constitution, a stand that some observers consider a form of pressure aimed at keeping the document's prospects alive. Some top EU officials, including European Commission Vice President Guenter Verheugen, who supervised the record admission of 10 new members in 2004, have suggested that the enlargement process might be held up or slowed down in response to the crisis.

Most people who have addressed the enlargement issue have stressed that the EU has already made formal commitments to Bulgaria and Romania, which it must honor. But there the consensus, such as it is, breaks down.

The main issue regarding enlargement was and remains Turkey, with Ukraine also figuring into the picture. Schroeder continues his support for Turkish EU membership, while Poland prides itself on being Ukraine's tribune in Brussels. Blair considers continuing enlargement vital for the EU's growth and survival.

But it seems clear that xenophobia and fear of enlargement played at least some role in the French and Dutch votes, a point not lost on politicians in those countries and elsewhere in the EU. Germany's opposition conservatives, who seem likely to come to power if early elections take place in September, have long opposed Turkish EU membership and have responded to the current EU crisis in part by stressing their opposition to giving Turkey anything but a "privileged partnership," which Ankara has rejected as second-class status.

But if many politicians are willing to honor their commitments to Romania and Bulgaria while ruling out consideration of Turkey or Ukraine, what about the western Balkans? Of those countries, only Croatia has had a serious chance of beginning admission talks in the foreseeable future -- it had planned to launch them this past March -- and Brussels has long held out a "European perspective" to Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, and ultimately Kosova. For those countries, the prize is a seat at the table where decisions are made, membership in the rich man's club, and generous aid benefits.

But Angela Merkel, who opinion polls suggest will succeed Schroeder as chancellor if the elections take place in September, told the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" of 24 June that she feels the EU's enlargement commitments end with Croatia. French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who makes no secret of his wish to be Chirac's successor, said in Paris on 27 June that there must be a pause in the enlargement process after Romania and Bulgaria are admitted but did not mention Croatia.

Lever For Reform

Many people would argue, however, that offering a European perspective leading to eventual EU membership has been Brussels' and the international community's most effective bargaining tool in encouraging reforms in the western Balkans, together with sponsoring a similar integration process into NATO structures. If anything, many critics have charged that the weakness with the Euro-Atlantic integration process is not that it is moving too fast but that it often does not provide the countries of the region with a clear road map or timetable that would encourage them to institute reforms more quickly or systematically.

Were Brussels to take the position that the enlargement process will be on hold after Romania and Bulgaria join in perhaps 2008, the international community might be denying itself important leverage in the region. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has noted, moreover, that the EU could undo much of what it has already achieved in the western Balkans were it to give that region negative signals now.

More importantly, by closing off European perspectives or by offering only a halfway house instead of full membership to the countries of the western Balkans, the EU runs the risk of creating a "black hole" in its midst. Is it realistic to talk about excluding the western Balkans from a EU that includes Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and Italy, which encircle that region? And does it make much sense to bar Albania and former Yugoslav republics with a total population of perhaps 25 million people with the same arguments used against membership for Turkey and Ukraine, which are much larger and farther away?

These and other questions will need to be addressed in the ongoing European debate in the coming months. There are already signs that the current crisis has served to generate a lively discussion and break down old taboos and conventions of political correctness in many countries. In Germany, for example, where almost anything with the label "European" was once embraced virtually without question, it is now much easier to find views critical of the Brussels establishment and of traditional thinkers such as Chirac and Schroeder than it was perhaps a year ago. One German journalist summed up his reaction to the crisis by saying that "it's time to put an end to the dogma of the inevitable super-state decreed from on high and in constant combat with the United States. Let's move away from it and the old-fashioned program of redistribution of wealth by concentrating on what the EU does best: trade, growth, and harmonization of laws." Those are issues that would find broad appeal in the western Balkans, too.