Editorials

Balkan hopes

26 April 2013
Presseurop

The scars are still far from healed, but Gazeta Wyborcza has aptly summed up what we’re seeing these days, namely “an end to the 24-year war in the Balkans”.

On 19 April, 15 years after the NATO intervention and following months of EU-brokered talks, Serbia and Kosovo signed a treaty to normalize their relations. A gesture quite rightly hailed as historic, even if it does not mean official recognition of Pristina by Belgrade and even if the implementation of the autonomy granted to the Serb-majority areas is bound to prove difficult.

Less than a week after that, the Serb president made a symbolic gesture, this time toward his Bosnian neighbours. Tomislav Nikolić is not going to leave behind an image as powerful as that of German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling before the memorial to the heroes of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw. But asking forgiveness “on his knees” for “the crimes of Srebrenica”, he acknowledged Serb responsibility for the 1995 genocide and paved the way for a dialogue, which will likewise be anything but easy.

These two events have one thing in common: the desire to turn the page on the wars in ex-Yugoslavia and to take the path towards joining the European Union. In this period of crisis for the European project, the western Balkan nations are showing us that the European Union retains a bit of its “soft power”, its force of attraction, which enables it to stabilize and democratize its nearby neighbours.

But this desire for Europe on the part of the Serbs (who’d have thought Nikolić the nationalist and his Prime Minister Ivica Dačić, ex-spokesman for Slobodan Milošević, would take these two steps?), Kosovars and, in the longer term, Bosnians might turn out to be a dangerous liaison for the EU. For it opens up two possibilities, between which a narrow middle way will have to be found.

Responding positively to these goodwill gestures and admitting Serbia (the most advanced of the three countries) within the next few years would be running the risk of an overly hasty and ill-prepared enlargement. This new member’s economy, state structures, justice system, and more generally its political practices would still be too far removed from the optimum European norms. And it would end up being rejected by public opinion in the EU and causing disillusionment in Serbia itself.

On the other hand, taking into account Serbia’s need to catch up in these domains and pushing back its accession prospects would run the risk of halting the reformist and democratic momentum of its leaders and of its society as a whole.

In other words, Serbia and its neighbours have been making concrete encouraging signs over the past few days, so the EU is going to have to hold out prospects of accession, even while setting certain limits – an exercise in political geometry at which it has always been inept. The example of Cyprus’s accession, which was supposed to help resolve the problem of Turkish occupation of half the island, and that of the erratic talks with Turkey are past cases in point. Especially since the western Balkans, and this is nearly a cliché by now, remain a powder keg.

Croatian accession, slated for 1 July, is not a coincidence. No doubt it will push the leaders in Belgrade towards efforts to avoid being relegated to the group of small Balkan states without accession prospects. But it should be an opportunity, as political scientist Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier recently pointed out, “to place the rule of law at the centre of enlargement policy” – so as to better prepare the welcome for future newcomers and avoid disenchantment the morning after.