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EU: Commission Edges Toward A Preaccession Strategy For The Western Balkans

The European Commission yesterday adopted a proposal that looks at ways of advancing the integration of the Western Balkan countries with the European Union. Chris Patten, the EU's external affairs commissioner, repeated that the bloc's final goal is the absorption of the region as members. But he indicated that insufficient "political will," as well as EU budget constraints, remain the greatest obstacles.

Brussels, 22 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission yesterday took the first tentative step toward suggesting that the European Union start treating the five Western Balkan countries -- Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Serbia and Montenegro -- as bona fide enlargement candidates.

It adopted a proposal for next month's Thessaloniki summit to thoroughly upgrade the EU's relations with the region and initiate partnerships that can easily be converted into preaccession agreements.

So far, two EU summits -- in Feira, Portugal, in 2001 and in Copenhagen last December -- have recognized the five countries as "potential members." However, relations with the region are predicated on what the EU calls the "Stabilization and Association" process, tweaked primarily for reconstruction and rehabilitation.

Recent upheavals mean that the five countries do not form a coherent whole for the EU to deal with. Whereas Croatia has already applied for membership, Serbia and Montenegro, together with Bosnia, have yet to sign basic Stabilization and Association agreements.

Chris Patten, the EU's external affairs commissioner, yesterday insisted that the Stabilization and Association process has proven "extraordinarily" successful in transforming the region. The time has come, he said, to "enrich" the cooperation by setting up European Integration Partnerships. These partnerships, Patten said, would be "equivalent" to the "Europe agreements" that the 10 presently acceding countries signed prior to becoming enlargement candidates.

"What we've been trying to do is to enrich the Stabilization and Association process politically with a greater sense that this is about joining the European Union. And secondly, we've been seeking to enrich it by incorporating into the process some of the mechanisms that [EU Enlargement Commissioner] Guenter Verheugen has used with so much skill and panache in bringing about the enlargement of the European Union itself," Patten said.

Much, Patten stressed, will depend on the political will of the Western Balkan countries to seize the opportunity.

The offer, which must be endorsed by EU member states, lists a number of measures familiar from the current enlargement process. It suggests that the commission's annual progress reports start identifying key short-term and medium-term reforms, offering checklists which the governments in the region should embrace "as action programs for themselves."

The document says EU member states should send civil servants on missions to the Western Balkans to train their colleagues. There is also talk of providing technical assistance to start the changeover to EU law. Cooperation on justice and home affairs is to be strengthened, offering "realistic and measurable" benchmarks for the five countries. Some EU community programs in fields like science and education could be opened to them. Finally, liberalization of trade would proceed, and the creation of a free-trade area in the region is listed as a medium-term goal.

The only unknown in yesterday's document is money. The EU's budget for the Western Balkans between 2000 and 2006 is 4.65 billion euros ($5.4 billion). Since much of that money was spent at the beginning of the period, there is now a risk that aid will decline in relative terms. Hence, Patten said, the commission will be requesting additional funds.

"We've put within the existing budgetary allocations for external actions, we've put a proposal to the [EU] Council [of Ministers], to the budgetary authority [member states and the European Parliament], for spending an additional 200 million [euros] over the next three years, which in 2004 will prevent any reduction in our spending line in the Western Balkans. It will mean we will have 70 million more [euros] each year," Patten said.

The EU's Greek presidency has said it would like to give the region 300 million euros extra per year, but Patten does not seem to think that goal realistic. It would involve shifting funds from the EU's enlargement budget to external aid "budget lines." That means Greece would need to persuade its 14 fellow governments to revise the extremely delicate and sensitive compromises that underpin the bloc's 2000 to 2006 budget.

But Patten acknowledged that under the relatively conservative commission scenario, "there would begin to be a divergence between Romania and Bulgaria and the Western Balkan countries" in terms of per capita EU aid. Both Bulgaria and Romania saw their aid dramatically increase this year.

Patten also acknowledged the EU's external aid budget is likely to be subjected to further pressures once the bloc becomes involved in reconstruction work in Iraq. Nevertheless, Patten said he believes there will be no "direct trade-off between the Western Balkans and the Middle East."

He went on to note that the external aid budget is "not infinite," which seems to indicate that it would need to be supplemented for Iraq.

The fact that preaccession funds are fenced in until the next budget starting in 2007 partly explains why the commission tries to discourage talk of early membership for the likes of Croatia or Serbia and Montenegro.

Patten flatly refused to speculate over dates and put the onus on the political will of local leaders to "get on" with reforms. "It's not very sensible to set targets unless you go home and work like hell to accomplish them," he said. "The pace at which countries become members of the European Union is in their own hands. We didn't determine the pace at which the 10 countries who become members next year will join. That was decided by how rapidly and how vigorously they themselves incorporated economic and political reforms. The best way you could actually demonstrate to the 15 existing -- soon to become 25 -- member states of the European Union that you're serious is by getting on with the job of reform."

Patten then proceeded to tick off a long list of jobs that have not been well done so far. The fight against organized crime needs to stepped up drastically, he said. In addition, the countries need to produce an environment in which Western European investors "will want to put their money," employment opportunities must be increased, exporting capacity heightened, and "decent" customs services and police services need to be put in place, together with what Patten called "decent and independent" judiciaries.