The Brussels-based bloc has a particular attraction for the countries of the region for three reasons.
Looking Toward The EU
First, membership means a seat at the table where decisions affecting all of Europe are made. The small Balkan states might not wield much influence, but it is better to be inside looking out than outside looking in, or so the argument has run.
Second, joining the EU symbolizes the end of the continent's division and the inclusion of former communist countries -- including war-torn states -- in the "rich man's club." For former Yugoslavs, whose passport was once the only one in Europe with which one could travel freely to the East or West without a visa, it means a return to a normal situation. It also means an end to the inconvenience and humiliation of having to go through often-long procedures for something that was once so simple as a visit to relatives working in Germany. The importance of visa-free travel for ordinary people in the western Balkans should not be underestimated.
And third, as poorer members of a wealthy organization, the western Balkan states would be able to look forward to a cornucopia of subsidies, as well as opportunities for fairly unfettered study 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, prosperous, and democratic world.
Avoiding The Black Hole
For Brussels, integrating the western Balkans has long meant that there will be no "black hole" in the middle of the EU -- especially after Bulgaria and Romania join in 2008 or so -- in which organized crime could flourish. More recently, some Western governments have come to see EU membership for the western Balkans as a way of keeping out of that region unwelcome but well-funded political, criminal, or religious influences from Russia or the Middle East.
By offering the prospect of membership, the EU has, moreover, a powerful lever to influence precisely the kind of changes -- called "reforms" -- that it wants to see implemented. Progress has been slow in some countries, but the view from Brussels for years was that it is better to have slow progress than to isolate a potentially volatile region that is indisputably part of Europe and right on the doorstep of several member states.
Expansion Fatigue Strikes
But then on May 29, 2005, 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.
One year after those two votes, the EU is none the clearer as to its goals and how to achieve them. In June 2006, a summit took place in Vienna, but there was no agreement on any of the key issues, including the fate of the constitution. The only consensus seemed to appear in putting off any possible movement on thorny questions until the German Presidency in the first half of 2007, or maybe to the French Presidency in the second half of 2008.
It was perhaps telling for the newer members -- and those who would like to join -- that a joint declaration by the Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia was "slapped down," as the "Financial Times" put it on June 17, by Luxembourg, Germany, and other, unnamed EU founder states. The five Central European countries had called into question what they regard as their second-class status within the bloc and demonstrated their willingness to work together. Some observers recalled French President Jacques Chirac's remark about a 2003 declaration by a similar group of countries, which backed the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. The French leader said at that time that they had missed an opportunity to "shut up."
Serbian President Boris Tadic (left) with EU enlargement commissioner Otto Rehn in Belgrade in May (epa)
Before and during the summit, several leaders of older member states made it clear that one cannot speak of enlargement, at least beyond Romania and Bulgaria, before the growing EU has decided at least on how it will manage its internal affairs. That would mean 2009 at the very earliest. 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 much slimmer as a result.
This was true for Croatia, which had long sought to convince itself that its membership on the heels of Romania and Bulgaria was a foregone conclusion. Many people in the western Balkans suspected that the EU was keeping them at arm's length as a pretext for dodging the larger and more controversial question of Turkish membership. After all, the reasoning in the Balkans went, had not the West Europeans told them for years that integrating such small states would not require much money and effort on Brussels' part?
Meanwhile, antireform forces in the Balkans took heart, blocking police and constitutional reform in Bosnia. In Serbia, they continue to thwart the arrest and extradition to the Hague-based war crimes tribunal of former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, with the result that relations between Belgrade and Brussels are on hold.
Time For A Local Alternative?
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 a EU that does not seem to want them, might it not be time for the people in the western Balkans to reexamine old beliefs about the necessary postcommunist rite of passage and look for alternatives? Has not the obsession with EU membership become something of a white elephant, like the EU-sponsored bridge over the Prut River from Romania to Moldova that stood unused for several years for want of a road on the Moldovan side?
How else might the countries of the region modernize their economies and expand their markets than with top-down efforts at nation-building and seemingly endless rules imposed from abroad? Might it not be to their advantage to concentrate first on developing straightforward free-trade and travel 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? After all, there is no better incentive for learning to think outside the box than being denied permission to enter the box.