Prague, 3 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Kosovo crisis is having an undeniable effect on the Central and East European countries' process of accession to the European Union.
Until now, Brussels has run the accession process without particular urgency, preparing the eastern candidates for eventual membership at dates left undefined. Concrete negotiations opened last year with the leading group of five countries (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Estonia) and pre-negotiation preparations, a process called "screening", are going ahead with a less advanced second group of five (Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Bulgaria).
But the conflict with Yugoslavia appears to have changed everything. The EU has a new focus on finding permanent solutions to the chronic instability in the Balkan region, amid recriminations that it has not done enough to help those countries since the collapse of communism. Assisting the struggling constellation of West Balkan states (Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia, and -- when conditions allow -- rump Yugoslavia) towards eventual membership looks likely to preoccupy the EU for years to come.
How will that effect the prospects of the 10 eastern countries already engaged in the accession process? Stanley Crossick, Chairman of the Brussels-based think-tank of the European Policy Center, puts it this way:
"Does this slow up the enlargement process because it's going to be more complicated, or are the imperatives that Kosovo is creating, are those imperatives going to make the member states speed up the enlargement process? It could go either way."
Crossick says he believes much will depend on the vision and abilities of the new EU External Relations Commissioner who will take over later this year once a new Executive Commission is in place under President Romano Prodi. No one has yet been selected for the external relations post.
One of the eastern diplomats close to the expansion process is Zygimantas Pavilonis, Counsellor at the Lithuanian Mission to the EU. He says he feels a pivotal point of the process will be the December summit of EU leaders in Helsinki, under the rotating presidency of Finland:
"The Kosovo crisis, as we understand it here in Brussels, really puts more political pressure on EU member states to make wider decisions in Helsinki".
Pavilonis says there is an expectation evident around Brussels that all five of the present second-tier countries, including Lithuania, will be invited by the Helsinki summit to open accession negotiations. Present External Relations Commissioner Hans Van Den Broek has already said that extra countries will be offered negotiations "without any doubt in the coming period". The EU is not saying however, how many countries, nor exactly when.
Certainly, the pressure is on for Helsinki to consolidate the enlargement process. Romanian Ambassador to the EU, Constantin Ene, recently told RFE/RL that his country expects the summit to bring Romania into the first group in view of its importance to regional stability. Bulgarian Prime Minister Ivan Kostov expressed the same hopes for Bulgaria in an interview published in Germany last week (FAZ, May 27).
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in speeches in the region last month that he will press at Helsinki for the inclusion of both Romania and Bulgaria in the front-running group.
And current EU President Germany just this week (June 1) said in an encouraging statement that Slovakia's successful presidential election has materially improved its prospects of an early start to negotiations. Slovakia has long fulfilled the economic criteria for admission to negotiations, but was excluded from the first wave because of its deficiencies in democratization.
Even the President of the European Parliament, Jose Maria Gil Robles, has said the Kosovo crisis shows a clear political need to give a fresh boost to the enlargement process. The parliament itself, mindful of the coming membership of the three Baltic states, has recently (May 4) called on the EU Executive Commission to pay more attention to developing what it calls a "northern dimension" in its policies.
Looking therefore at the sense of urgency being generated in favor of a more focused expansion process, the signs seem to indicate that the Kosovo crisis is helping that process, not hindering it.
Reinforcing that hope are comments last week (May 26) by Commissioner Van Den Broek. He points out that the western Balkan countries (Albania, Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia and -- when conditions allow -- Yugoslavia) are being offered a new type of relationship with the EU, namely Stability and Association Agreements.
He says this will strengthen their economic and political stability while bringing them closer to eventual full integration with the EU.
He adds as a reassurance to the current 10 candidates that the stability agreements will not interfere with their membership prospects. He says the Balkan countries are on a separate track and the existing process should be able to continue "undisturbed".