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Headache Avoided, Hurdles Ahead

22/06/2010

Source from: Economist.com

AN OLD Yugoslav song celebrated the unity of the country from the Vardar, the river that runs through Macedonia, to Triglav, Slovenia’s highest mountain. Today’s ex-Yugoslav policymakers from the Vardar to Triglav are once again united, this time in relief. In a referendum yesterday 51.5% of Slovenes voted to approve an agreement made by their government with Croatia last year to send their mostly maritime border dispute, which focuses on the Bay of Piran (pictured), to arbitration. Croatia wants to join the European Union within the next couple of years; Slovenia, the only former Yugoslav republic inside the EU, had blocked its neighbour’s accession process over the dispute.

If the Slovene government had lost the vote, as many had feared, it would have been "a godsend to opponents of EU enlargement,"wrote Gerald Knaus and Kristof Bender of the European Stability Initiative, a think-tank. Failure to deal with a relatively straightforward border question would have augured poorly for the far more intractable squabbles in the rest of the region.

But it is not yet time to break open the champagne. The accession bids of all the western Balkan countries are beset with difficulties. Neither Croatia nor Serbia has fully complied with the demands of the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, according to a new assessment by the tribunal’s chief prosecutor (although they may have done just enough to move up a notch in the process when EU foreign ministers meet on June 14th).

Macedonia, which the European Commission has recommended begin talks on accession, cannot do so because of its long-running dispute with Greece over its name. Bosnia’s ethnic divisions still cripple the country. Kosovo has not even begun a formal accession process; EU police there have been raiding the offices of a senior minister and other officials they believe are mired in corruption. Montenegro needs to do far more to root out organised crime.

Perhaps the thorniest problem is the question of Kosovo’s status and Serbia’s attitude towards it. Five of the EU’s 27 member states do not recognise Kosovo’s independence. Yet as the British ambassador to Belgrade pointed out in a newspaper interview this weekend, if Serbia does not effectively renounce its claim to its former province during its accession process, that would be problematic for the 22 EU countries which have recognised it.

Little wonder, then, that on June 2nd a long-planned summit of EU and western Balkan foreign ministers in Sarajevo flopped. "Today in Sarajevo, the EU and the western Balkans decided on a new deal," said Miguel ángel Moratinos, the Spanish foreign minister. It was difficult to see what he was referring to.

Despite these problems, the fact that the EU surrounds the western Balkan hopefuls, unlike other aspiring members such as Turkey, militates in their favour. With the exception of Croatia none can realistically join before 2020. But as a new policy brief from the European Council on Foreign Relations notes, "The promise of EU integration is the political glue that until now has held the Balkans together.”

If EU member states continue to postpone accession into the indefinite future, they risk undermining the steps towards peace and stability taken in the region. The EU has many tools to motivate the Balkan states, and should not be timid about using them.

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