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EU/Balkans: Is The Bloc Doing Enough To Help The Region?

The western Balkans have always been a turbulent area, and that tradition certainly continued over the last decade, when wars and conflicts scarred the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. The cluster of little states that emerged from the wreckage now often looks to the European Union as a guarantor of future prosperity and stability, as do its neighbors. But is the EU doing enough to help the region, or is it neglecting the possibilities?

Prague, 7 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union is poised to undertake its biggest expansion ever by admitting 10 countries, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, in 2004.

Included in the 10 is the small but prosperous western Balkan state of Slovenia, which gained its independence by breaking away from Yugoslavia in 1991.

With the arrival of Slovenia as a member, the EU will have a foothold in the western Balkans, that area of Southeastern Europe often plagued by interethnic turbulence and instability. South of Slovenia lies a cluster of small states that also aspire to future EU membership as a way of anchoring themselves safely in modern Europe. They are Croatia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and the Yugoslav Federation, soon to become known as Serbia-Montenegro.

EU spokeswoman Emma Udwin explained the present state of relations between Brussels and these states. "The western Balkan countries have been given the explicit understanding that if their performance matches up, they can one day look forward to membership of the European Union. But it all depends on their performance against a number of different benchmarks," Udwin said.

Udwin, who is the spokeswoman for EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten, said Brussels is "convinced" that this perspective has contributed enormously to stabilizing this troubled region.

She said the EU believes all five states have a future in the European Union but that the integration process should not be hurried. She said Brussels wants to see these states offer substantial progress in meeting EU membership criteria, rather than what she called "empty promises."

Udwin said each of the countries in the region has had different experiences, so it is difficult to generalize. But she said there is one particularly pressing problem common to all: "We certainly feel that organized crime and corruption is a blight on the region and is something that needs to be tackled across the board, so that the countries themselves will benefit from a more functional structure in their economies, and also this will make the area a more attractive place for outside investors."

Analysts say one major policy issue facing the EU is just how to carry out a future expansion into the western Balkans. Heather Grabbe of the Centre for European Reform in London put it this way: "The question is really how the union will react when some countries apply to join and others are left outside. Is it prepared to allow the countries to join individually rather than the region as a whole? For instance, Croatia is very likely to apply soon, possibly this month. Should Croatia have to wait for the other countries of the former Yugoslavia? That's the big question for the EU."

She said this is a dilemma in that Brussels seeks to foster regional unity rather than causing rivalries based on who's "in" or who's "out." In other words, should the EU give priority to regional integration or to accepting applications for membership based on their individual merits?

Grabbe said she finds the EU's policy toward the region generally well-defined and that the "weak spot" in EU policy making rests not so much in the Balkans but toward countries like Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova.

The perspective within the western Balkans themselves, however, is not always so bright. For instance, Remzi Lani, the director of the Albanian Media Institute in Tirana, noted that Macedonia already has an association agreement with the EU, while Albania does not.

Lani said many Albanians feel the EU has not been fair in its treatment of Albania. "It was a kind of feeling that they were applying double standards -- one standard for Macedonia and another for Albania -- because for a long time we have been hearing here that Albania must be stable in order to sign the agreement. But I must say that Albania is [already] one of the most stable places in the western Balkans, because Albania is more stable than Serbia, more stable than Macedonia, more stable than Kosovo, more stable than Montenegro, speaking from a view of political stability, and more stable than Bosnia," Lani said.

Lani noted that Macedonia gained its agreement with Brussels despite being involved in a recent civil conflict.

He acknowledged that Albania has delayed its internal reform process, but he said that, in any event, the EU never makes clear the criteria it is using to judge such issues.

And he said the European Commission is not doing enough to promote the concept of a united Europe. He said that to most ordinary Albanians, the EU means little more than the possibility of free movement, that is, a permit to travel to other countries. "You see [EU member] France doing so much to promote France in Albania, Italy promoting Italy, Germany promoting Germany, but when it comes to Europe, that concept sounds rather abstract," Lani said.

Back in Brussels, EU spokeswoman Udwin said she is "puzzled" by this attitude. "Just around a month ago, Commissioner Patten was in Albania, and during that visit he announced that we will soon be launching negotiations for a stabilization-and-association agreement [with Albania]. Now, that is one of the important milestones on the road of the stabilization-and-association process, and it is something that Albania has been very urgently demanding and working hard to bring about," Udwin said.

And she said there has been progress vis-a-vis other countries in the region. "We have announced that when the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina is fully formed, we will open discussions on a feasibility study. That is the stage before negotiations for a stabilization-and-association agreement. And we would also hope to open talks on a feasibility study with Serbia-Montenegro once they have got their own constitutional arrangements finally sorted out," Udwin said.

Udwin said Yugoslavia has made much progress on the constitutional issue but that the EU wants to see completion of an "action plan" on trade and internal markets before it begins those discussions.

The future of the western Balkans is also a priority topic for Greece, which just took over the rotating presidency of the EU. Roussos Koundouros is a spokesman for the Greek mission to the EU. "There will be a summit which will include all these countries, at chief-of-government level, or head-of-state level, which will take place in Saloniki in Greece in June, which will have as an objective to review and upgrade the stabilization-and-association process," Koundouros said.

Koundouros said he hopes that on the occasion of the summit, the EU will be able to offer the western Balkans "something tangible" or at least a confirmation of the steady interest of the EU in those countries.