Dobro do?li to the Balkans, Baroness Ashton

Catherine Ashton visits the Western Balkans in her first official foreign trip, and is again roundly criticised. But this troubled region could do with her attention

Catherine Ashton
can be excused for feeling a bit depressed. No matter what she does or where
she goes, the criticism rains down on her like a familiar downpour in her
native Lancashire. Now that she has set off on
her first official foreign trip, to the Balkans, people are grumbling that she
should have gone somewhere more foreign, like the Middle

This criticism is
not only a reflection of the High Representative’s stature, but reflects a
different malaise: European governments are bored of the Balkans. Having been a
central theme of foreign policy debates in the 1990s, the region now excites
nobody but a dwindling band of experts. Communiqués by EU meetings have
different dates, but the content is largely the same: they identify and laud
progress but exhort more effort. Ask for a list of the EU’s top foreign policy
priorities and the Balkans is likely to figure far down.

Many European
foreign ministers see this as a sign of the Union’s
success. From a region torn apart in the mid-1990s, a new one has emerged
helped by the “push” of ESDP missions and the “pull” of
Euro-Atlantic accession. Recent good news on visas and membership applications
has added to this storyline. Given this real but insufficient progress, most EU
leaders would probably agree that the Balkans are exactly where they ought to
be: not in the EU, where they could ruin the fragile post-Lisbon project, but
not so far away that they are driven to despair and self-destruction.

But dig beneath the
headlines and a number of problems remain that will require considered EU
attention. The first has to do with the EU. Though all member-states in
principle accept that the region belongs in the EU, they do not agree on how
quickly membership should be doled out. A few EU governments like Austria, Greece,
Italy, Bulgaria, Romania
and Sweden
would fast-track accession for most of the Balkan countries.

Keenly aware that
the EU accession of Romania and Bulgaria has reduced popular appetite for
enlargement in parts of the EU, countries like Germany, France and the Benelux
countries would prefer to postpone EU membership for as long as possible, with
the exception of Croatia’s bid. A final group of countries — Denmark, Britain,
Spain – are pro-enlargement, but join forces with the two bigger groupings
depending on the issue at hand (or because of special concerns e.g. over
Kosovo’s independence).

The division among
member-states has, in turn, had a number of effects. It has resulted in a
number of EU countries reverting to bilateral, rather than common policies to
achieve their objectives. Greece’s
dispute with Macedonia and Slovenia’s block on Croatia’s EU admission are only the
most high-profile examples. To the list can be added Bulgaria’s
new Macedonia policy, or Italy’s support
for the Albanian government.

Another effect of
the stasis has been more local. The region’s leaders have learned to use the
EU’s approach for their own internal purposes while
EU’s use of diplomatic language is often open to interpretation. The region’s leaders – such as Sali Berisha
in Albania, Milorad Dodik in
Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nikola Gruevski in Macedonia
and Milo Djukanovic in Montenegro
– have understood that
visa-free travel will help them maximise votes and therefore work hard to get
on the Schengen ‘white list’. Yet their eagerness for administrative reforms
remains skin-deep. In most cases, they have used the accession process to centralise
powers and to provide benefits to a close-knit group of followers, be they
family, clan or party members.

Finally, the division has impacted the EU’s ability to act
decisively when it has been challenged. This is particularly problematic in the
region’s three remaining
flashpoints; Bosnia, Kosovo
and Macedonia.
Take the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Milorad Dodik, the prime
minister of Republika Srpska, has challenged the international community’s writ
and walked dangerously close to secessionist policies. EU reactions have been

To some, this means
that the EU’s accession process does not work and should be fundamentally
rethought. But while it is true to say that it cannot solve every regional
problem, particularly ethno-national differences inside Bosnia and the
Kosovo-Serbian dispute, it has in fact been a lot more effective than it is
given credit for and can continue to be in the future. The EU only needs to
adapt these policies for the particular environment of the Balkans. Luckily,
the EU may already have provided a template for how this can work: Some of the
answer may lie in the case of visa liberalisation.

The visa
liberalisation process has shown it can catalyse reforms and invigorate administrative
capacities even in states that are usually thought of as having weak
administrations (such as Bosnia).  The EU should build on this experience by cherry-picking
parts of the aquis, promising that
the aspirant states can, in a piecemeal manner, gain the benefits of EU
membership provided that they reform. This is exactly what has happened on visa
liberalisation. An attractive part of the aquis
– freedom of travel inside the EU – was broken off from the whole and the
region’s countries were made to reform. Because the process was transparent,
regionally competitive and popular with citizens, it worked to drive reform, even
in countries and at times when not much else worked, as in Bosnia.

To make this
strategy even more effective it will be key to open negotiations on the extra-aquis areas with all the countries at
the same time – in a kind of a ‘preparatory regatta’, thus putting them in the
‘waiting room’ of the EU in a more structured way. Like on visa liberation, the
pressure not to be outdone by ones’ neighbours would create incentives for
governments to reform in the targeted areas. Take services. If a Serbian
company can offer services inside the EU on par with British or Polish
businesses, then the impact could be profound – and the prospects of access to
these markets useful as a pressure on aspirant governments to genuinely reform.

To undertake this
kind of cherry-picking/regatta, the countries need to be given candidate
status. However, that should be within reach for each country except Kosovo
and Bosnia.
The argument against granting the countries candidate status is that doing so
would lend pressure to start accession talks immediately, something there is
little appetite for in the EU. But Bulgaria,
Latvia, Romania and Turkey were all given candidate
status and had accession talk deferred. For example Turkey was granted candidate status
in 1999 but did not begin accession talks before 2005.

however, is only part of the answer. An additional element is needed. The EU
should find ways to extend a core EU approach – cohesion
policies and funds – to the Balkans sooner than when the countries are in the
last stretches of the accession process. Cohesion policies are about closing
the development gap between less and more developed regions inside the EU. They
go along with institution-building efforts, which are all about national
development policies. Opening up the EU’s cohesion instruments before accession
negotiations worked well in other countries, for example in Poland and Romania,
but promises to have an even bigger impact in the Balkans, given the
underdevelopment of the region’s industry and agriculture.

This new policy will
not, however, work in one country, Kosovo, and will not be enough in another, Bosnia. As long
as five EU states refuse to recognise its independence, Kosovo cannot hope to
engage in the accession-like process.  If
politics is the art of the possible, the same can be said of the EU accession
process. If the EU applied an accession-like policy to Kosovo, it would
probably do more to help the newly-independent country than the 1800 policemen
currently deployed. But it cannot.

Then there is
Bosnia-Herzegovina. Past experience shows that the sovereignty issue does not
necessarily prevent an EU reform dialogue with selected agencies or
institutions – but that such progress does not change underlying problems. In
the run-up to the 2010 elections, there may be little outsiders can do. What
needs to be done – e.g. bold action such as organising a referendum on the
country’s EU membership, preventative deployment of troops etc – seems beyond
the international community at present. So the best strategy may be to prevent
a referendum (including forcibly, if necessary), but minimize European
involvement in the campaign, yet pressure the Serbian and Croatian governments
to make a joint statement on their respect for Bosnia’s territorial integrity.

The cases of Kosovo
and Bosnia
show that the EU will have to find different ways to apply the policy in
different Balkan countries. In Bosnia,
the EU will do it in parallel to addressing the role of the OHR, alongside Republika
Srpska’s brinkmanship and the Federation’s dysfunction. Vis-à-vis Serbia, the bloc will have to develop a post-ICJ
policy, so as not to be undermined by Belgrade’s
diplomatic legerdemain – right now, Serbia looks better prepared for a
judgement than European governments. Over Macedonia,
the EU will have to get tough on their fellow EU member, Greece, at a time when the Athens government is already under a lot of

All of this will
require far more push than a mere Enlargement Commissioner can muster. As the
EU’s top diplomat Catherine Ashton can, however, provide the necessary focus
for a re-thinking of Europe’s Balkan policy.
Her visit to the region is a hopefully a step in this direction – and should be
welcomed by all, rather than be criticised for what it is not.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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