The European Commission’s annual reports on the would-be members of the European Union are supposed to lay out the progress these countries have made in their bids to join the EU. But in the nine countries currently waiting to join the Union, the reports – which this year will be adopted by the college of commissioners on 10 October – are also being closely scrutinised for hints about the Union’s own mood swings on enlargement.
The eurozone crisis and the dismal economic news from across the Union have added to the anxiety with which the progress reports are received in the candidate and potential candidate countries. This applies as much to Croatia, which is set to join next July, as to Kosovo, which has not even been recognised by all EU member states and is therefore at the earliest stage of a path that may or may not lead into the Union.
The Commission is anxious to play down indications that the Union’s current 27 member states have cooled on enlargement, seeing it at best as a distraction and at worst as expensive – even futile – charity. The Commission understands that its leverage with governments in the western Balkans, in Turkey and in Iceland stands and falls by the strength of the prospect that they might join one day.
“The excitement of 2004” – when ten countries joined the EU – “is gone,” an official concedes, “but the commitment remains strong.” Not everyone is convinced by such assurances. In a few of the candidate countries there has been a noticeable cooling of pro-EU fervour – perhaps nowhere more so than in Turkey.
Turkey has always been unusual among the applicants for EU membership in that it had foreign-policy interests with a far broader reach beyond EU accession. A buoyant economy, resurgent Kurdish terrorism, the turmoil in neighbouring Syria and in the wider Arab world, combined with a persistent ambivalence from the EU about Turkish membership, have all lessened the importance of EU membership for Turkey’s government. A recent survey by the Turkish-German Foundation for Education and Scientific Research (TAVAK) found that only 17% of Turks believe their country will one day be a member.
In Serbia, there is a stronger feeling than in Turkey that the country needs the EU. But here, too, enthusiasm is moderated by what many Serbs see as a constant escalation of demands from the EU or individual member states (Germany in particular), notably on Kosovo, and by the general gloomy mood inside the EU.
In the spring, Serbia acquired a new president and government, made up of Miloševic?-era officials, who seem to be far less keen on EU membership than their predecessors. On Saturday (29 September), Tomislav Nikolic?, Serbia’s president, said that the country was “no longer rushing to join the EU” because “a decade of running after [EU membership] has brought us poverty”. Such rhetoric appears to resonate with parts of the electorate. Even the granting of EU candidate status in March was not enough to keep the nominally pro-EU Democrats in power.
As in previous years, concerns over corruption and the independence of the judiciary in Montenegro are expected to be the main focus of this year’s report. Montenegro has started the first stage of its accession talks and has made good progress, according to EU officials. But the political comeback, announced last month, of Milo Djukanovic , who dominated Montenegrin politics for two decades, could complicate talks.
Under Djukanovic, himself a successful businessman, close links were forged between business and the governing Democratic Party of Socialists, giving rise to persistent accusations of widespread corruption, stemming allegedly from the very top. Less than two years ago, Djukanovic resigned as prime minister and handed over to Igor Lukšic, a young politician with a reputation as a reformer. But Djukanovic‘s return to the top spot on the Socialists’ list for the 14 October parliamentary election might yet confirm the perceptions or doubts of those who thought the change was purely cosmetic.
The European Commission will next week adopt a study on whether Kosovo is ready to take the first formal steps on the way to eventual membership, negotiating a stabilisation and association agreement. That has inched closer with the ending in September of Kosovo’s supervised independence. But as long as Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain refuse to recognise Kosovo as an independent state, they may halt the process at any point. High-level corruption and the weak rule of law continue to worry the Commission and the member states, as does the situation in north Kosovo, with its Serb majority, which is controlled from Belgrade.
Since June 2011, Iceland has opened 18 ‘chapters’ of negotiations with the EU. It closed ten immediately – testament to the amount of EU legislation that it already had on its books by dint of its membership of the European Economic Area. Progress on the other eight chapters has been smooth, and a set of other chapters are likely to be opened before Icelanders vote in parliamentary elections in 2013. The tone of the Commission’s report is, understandably, likely to be sunny. But there are clouds. In 2011, Össur Skarphédinsson, Iceland’s foreign minister, said that he wanted by mid-2012 to start tackling the two most difficult of the 33 chapters, agriculture and fisheries. That has not happened. The political climate – in Iceland and several EU member states – is not conducive. When it will be is anyone’s forecast.
BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA
The main piece of good news on Bosnia this year has been the formation of a central government in January, following a general election in October 2010. But the ruling coalition started bickering as soon as it was formed. It is now in real danger of falling apart after Sunday’s local elections (7 October) and the expected removal of Zlatko Lagumdžija, leader of the Social Democrats, from the office of foreign minister.
Bosnia missed the very first deadline on a new action plan agreed with the European Commission when it failed to adopt constitutional amendments at the end of August to implement a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights in 2009. Bosnia has not yet submitted a membership application to the EU, and the Commission is not encouraging it do so before reforms have been undertaken.
There has, though, been a swathe of good news on enlargement policy recently. Not only has Serbia gained candidate status, but it is all but certain to resume talks with Kosovo, which should pave the way for opening membership talks some time next year. Albania has taken some steps, albeit small, to overcome the political divisions that have paralysed the country. Montenegro has begun membership negotiations, while Iceland’s talks are on track. Even Kosovo has made some limited progress, and the Commission’s feasibility study is to be unveiled next week.
But, with the exception of Croatia, which – barring last-minute objections from Slovenia over a banking dispute – is set to join next year, all the good news has been on relatively minor matters, and progress could easily be undone. Both Štefan Füle, the European commissioner for enlargement and neighbourhood policy, and the governments of the candidate countries will try to present next week’s reports in a positive light. But there is a good chance that their assurances will lack conviction.
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