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EU: Brussels Uses Membership Prospects To Coax Reforms In Western Balkans

The European Union's Greek presidency has presented a set of ambitious plans for the Western Balkans countries, worked out together with the next EU chair, Italy. The plans hold out the prospect of eventual EU membership for all five countries of the region, but their mixed reception by other EU member states suggests the road to accession will not be easy for any of them.

Brussels, 29 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Greek program for the Western Balkans follows a well-trodden path.

Every EU presidency tries to make the most of its six months in office, among other things trying to shift as much attention to its own region as possible. Finland and Sweden promoted the EU's northern dimension, while Spain and Portugal were keen on engaging countries on the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

Now, Greece -- in close cooperation with Italy -- is trying to mobilize support for the Western Balkans.

There is one important difference, however. As opposed to the rest of the EU's neighbors, the five Western Balkan countries -- Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, and Yugoslavia -- have all been recognized as having virtually certain EU membership potential.

Greece and Italy are now trying to move the EU from vague promises to a commitment to send the countries a "powerful message" supporting their membership ambitions and "clarifying the path they will have to follow" -- as their joint program puts it -- culminating in an EU-Western Balkans summit in Thessaloniki, Greece, in June.

This, however, appears to be the weak point of the strategy. While no one seriously opposes Croatia's membership bid, announced for late February, the rest of the region is in dire need of thorough political and economic reforms.

Dennis MacShane, a deputy British foreign minister, spoke for many of his colleagues when he said the corruption and organized crime besetting the region are not just an internal problem but a direct threat to the EU: "It is the establishment of rule of law -- Rechtstaat, etat de droit -- that is essential. That's to cover crime -- 70 percent of all prostitution in London now is organized by Albanians. It's to cover people trafficking. There isn't a community in our midst that doesn't have people coming through the Balkans who arrive as asylum seekers and economic migrants."

MacShane's worries were echoed by most other ministers, who also raised issues like the return of refugees, recognition of existing borders, civilian control over the military and institution building.

Also, when Greek and Italian representatives spoke in general terms of the need for the nations of the Western Balkans to align their basic values with those of the EU, others were not shy in pointing out how wide the gulf actually remains. A particularly frustrating example for many is the perceived unwillingness of Yugoslavia and Croatia to cooperate with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

Again, Britain's MacShane was the most forceful in driving home the point: "[Another condition is] to cover the question of ICTY, because we have to make clear to our friends in the Balkans that one of the roads to Europe lies through The Hague, and the continued and, frankly, provocative refusal of some governments there -- namely Serbia and Croatia -- to cooperate fully in returning indicted alleged war criminals to The Hague represents a very serious barrier to full integration into Europe."

As a consequence, many EU ministers appeared to say they would prefer if the bloc errs on the side of caution at this stage.

Thus, the Dutch foreign minister said EU-Western Balkan relations should proceed "one carefully prepared step at a time," with the next step following only if conditions inherent in the former have been met.

A number of EU ministers implicitly or explicitly rejected the Greco-Italian assumption that the Western Balkan region should be treated as a single entity.

German Deputy Foreign Minister Hans Martin Bury said the EU should apply to the Western Balkans the so-called "regatta principle," which underlies its relations with the 10 candidate countries expected to join the EU next year: "[The terms the EU should offer] are strict conditionality, individual merit and the fulfillment of commitments assumed in the integration process by individual countries -- that is, the 'regatta principle' applies, and therefore, no political rebates [will be made for anyone]."

This point was also underlined by all Scandinavian ministers. Sweden, Denmark, and Finland all said they support an approach that would enable each of the five "potential candidates" to proceed at their own pace.

Denmark's representative also warned the EU not to succumb to the lure of abstract programs, saying that it's the actual effort put in by each of the Western Balkan countries that is "absolutely critical."

He added that although the EU should keep an "open door" for them, there should be no "free access, no cheap tickets."