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Western Balkans: Is There Life Outside The EU?

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn has said the EU must live up to its commitments, but whether that is likely to happen soon is another matter Signs are growing that the EU and some western Balkan countries are losing their attraction for each other. This could prove a blessing in disguise if the Balkan states take advantage of the opportunity to challenge old dogmas and explore new alternatives.

One truism of postcommunist Europe is that all the countries of Eastern Europe and the Balkans will sooner or later join the EU and NATO. This has proven valid for much of the region, but not for what has become known as the western Balkans, namely Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosova, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia.

Croatia's plans for EU membership by 2007 are on hold because of Zagreb's failure to arrest and extradite fugitive war crimes indictee and former General Ante Gotovina, while the other countries have always been considered relative long shots to join that body (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 August 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 6 and 20 June 2005).

Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia had hopes of joining NATO reasonably soon, but U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Kurt Volker said in Brussels on 8 September that NATO should hold off on any further expansion until at least 2008 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 September 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 22 November 2002, and 27 May and 23 July 2004).

The EU has a particular attraction for the countries of the region for three reasons. First, membership in the bloc means a seat at the table where decisions affecting all of Europe are made. Second, joining the EU symbolizes the end of the continent's division and the inclusion of former communist countries in the "rich man's club." And third, as poorer members of a wealthy organization, the western Balkan states can look forward to a cornucopia of subsidies, as well as opportunities for fairly unfettered study, travel, and work. In short, even if NATO membership will some day provide for these countries' security requirements, joining the EU is still regarded in the region as an essential part of its rite of passage into the modern and democratic world.

For Brussels, integrating the western Balkans means that there will be no "black hole" in the middle of the EU -- especially after Bulgaria and Romania join -- in which organized crime could flourish. By offering the prospect of membership, the EU has a powerful lever to influence precisely the kind of changes -- called "reforms" -- that it wants to see implemented.

But on 29 May, French voters rejected the proposed EU constitution by a clear majority, and Dutch voters did the same by an even larger margin three days later. In both cases, objections to further enlargement of the EU after the admission of 10 new members in 2004 played at least some role in the vote. Consequently, many people in countries hoping to join that body began to fear that their chances of obtaining membership within a reasonable time frame had become slimmer as a result.

And even if some people in the Balkans failed to get the message that something had changed in Western Europe, it was clear to the political class in the older EU member states that further enlargement is not likely in the near future. Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, who comes from Finland, repeatedly stressed that the EU must meet its commitments to candidates. But it was clear that he would have his hands full in getting Brussels to stay on track with Romania and Bulgaria. Croatia would be even more problematic, with or without Gotovina, and there seemed to be little enthusiasm for fully integrating the other countries of the western Balkans, even though they are fairly small states that probably would not require too much money or effort to bring into the EU.

Balkan reactions to the new developments were not slow in coming. Sensing that the EU had lost its leverage and might not be able to offer serious membership prospects in the foreseeable future, the Bosnian Serb government and parliament repeatedly refused to approve EU-backed proposals for police reform in Bosnia-Herzegovina (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 August, and 14 September 2005). Banja Luka's failure to do so by 15 September meant that Bosnia has no chance of starting Stabilization and Association talks in 2005 and possibly in 2006.

In Croatia, the EU increasingly came to be seen as a bully because of the Gotovina affair, which resulted in a decline of popular support for EU membership. By late August, only 39 percent of Croats were in favor of joining the bloc -- in contrast to strong majorities in previous years -- and only 12 percent expected membership negotiations to start by the end of 2005, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Deutsche Welle noted other poll results showing that 57 percent of Croats oppose EU membership and only 34 percent support it.

Euroskepticism was also fueled by reports in the Croatian media that tarnished the bloc's image as the land of milk and honey. Croats began to pay more attention to the high unemployment rates in some EU member states, the inflationary problems that followed the introduction of the euro currency, the acrimonious dispute over the proposed EU constitution, and charges by some prominent figures like Czech President Vaclav Klaus that the EU is an undemocratic and bureaucratic super-state that rides roughshod over the sovereignty of newly independent nation-states.

RFE/RL recently reported interviews with ordinary Croats who said things about membership like "it's all the same to me." Others argued that the EU countries "need us more than we need them, but still we can't get on without them." One Zagreb resident said bluntly, "I've lived for 25 years in the EU, and it's better that we don't join." Another Croat told Deutsche Welle that EU membership is Croatia's only hope for getting real legislative reform, while someone else said that "we can live without the EU. We're a rich country. We just need to work."

The question then arises: if Brussels is unlikely to offer the western Balkans a serious "European perspective" within a clear time frame and if some people in those countries are becoming less enamored of the EU, might it not be time for them to reexamine old beliefs about the necessary postcommunist rite of passage and look for alternatives? How else might the countries of the region modernize their economies and expand their markets? Might it not be to their advantage to concentrate first on developing straightforward free-trade arrangements that would not involve compromising what for most of them is newly won sovereignty in favor of a distant and unelected bureaucracy?

Some Euroskeptics have long argued that the EU is cumbersome, inflexible, nontransparent, and dominated by Paris and Berlin. Might some other parts of Europe now find themselves faced with an opportunity to develop alternative ideas to the EU model that are simpler, more democratic, and hence more likely to produce clear results and win popular support?

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