Short-Sighted On EU Expansion

To join the EU Croatia has its work cut out for it; Serbia even more so

Top Stories | Izvor Moralic | December 2012 / January 2013

Hoping to reduce the U.K.’s financial obligations to the EU, PM David Cameron wants to keep his distance | Cartoon: M. Szyszkowitz

A grim Norbert Lammert, president of the German Bundestag, frowns narrowly from Der Spiegel’s online edition into a point somewhere in mid-distance. The headline: "Lammert Proposes to Suspend EU Enlargement." The EU has "to take the latest report very seriously," he said on 13 October. "Croatia is obviously not ready for EU membership... I don’t see the EU as capable of further expansion in the immediate future." The latest EU Monitoring Report on Croatia had identified ten further improvements needed before admission to the EU on 1 July, 2013.

The tone of the report was intentionally harsh, explained EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele. "We wanted Croatia to wake up," as it has "homework to do in the areas of competition, the judiciary and fundamental rights."

The report is expected to trigger action from the newly-elected Croatian government, that in the post-election calm has neglected addressing areas that require urgent response such as the restructuring of the shipbuilding industry.

If the EU wants its political and economic mirror image in the Western Balkans, it will have to participate in the process of bringing countries up to par.

The report also seeks the continuation of measures to streamline case-load processing in the judicial system that have in recent months proceeded sluggishly. These issues have featured prominently in the Croatian media and public discussion and their mention in the report should not surprise the government.

Other points were predictable, given the constant security concerns of the EU. As Croatia’s membership would move the frontier of the EU south and eastwards, the improvement of border control systems is a requirement that should not raise too many eyebrows.

The Commission’s caution is also understandable when juxtaposed against the fast-tracked accessions of Romania and Bulgaria, where aspects of rule of law remain unattended to this day. The report has to be seen not just in light of EU accession, but  also in broader issues of state governance.

The accepted methods of governance are changing, albeit gradually. The naming of former Minister of Economy Radimir Cacic to the supervisory board of INA, a partly state-owned petroleum giant, was immediately challenged by EU monitors and the media. As the mechanisms to prevent conflicts of interest were not in place yet, outside pressure was necessary to force the government to back down.

Thus Lammert’s view that candidates for membership can make the necessary adjustments on their own seems naïve. If the EU wants its political and economic mirror image in the Western Balkans, it will have to participate in the process of bringing countries up to par.

Lammert’s scepticism towards further enlargement is out of place given the political situations in potential candidates countries, particularly Serbia, that would be next in line. Earlier this year, the pro-European President Boris Tadic bowed out of politics following a narrow election defeat by the former radical Tomislav Nikolic. This left the Serbian political stage without strong alternatives on the centre-left and allowed a resurfacing of the political cadre that flourished under Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s. Nikolic reiterates that EU membership will remain Serbia’s goal, but "ten years of running" after the EU have brought the country to the edge of economic ruin, he says.

"It is time to think about ourselves for a while. We have many friends, let them compete over who will help Serbia." China, and Russia in particular, have strong interests, and in the case of the latter, an established presence in the region.

Given the delicate situation of Kosovo, Serbia’s accession is the most challenging case yet. Recognition of Kosovo’s independence would mean political suicide for the party that would set it in motion. Regardless of conviction, no political leader would willingly put himself in that situation.

At the same time, the political elite is aware that Kosovo’s independence is irreversible and that a compromise must be found, without a literal "recognition of independence".

Earlier in November, Prime Ministers Ivica Dacic and Hashim Thaci of Serbia and Kosovo met with Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, for the second time in less than a month to continue talks toward normalising relations between the two states. Dacic said he expected the dialogue to result in swift progress toward EU membership. Continuing frustrations in the negotiations could justify a change of course that would steer Serbia away from the EU.

The path to Serbian membership has to remain open, and attitudes, consistent for progress to be made. The proposals in Germany by the CDU/CSU to reinstate visa requirements because of the wave of Serbian asylum seekers would be counter-productive.

In a recent discussion at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Lammert retreated from his comments on Croatia. Experts were confident that Croatia could master the requirements in time, he revealed. But his vision of the Union’s future remained foggy, somewhere in the mid-distance of the EU’s borders.

"I have... become convinced that the ambition to take on new assignments and new members is greater than the ambition to fulfil existing obligations with care," he said, concluding that the EU has to address the discrepancy between political ambitions and economic integration. What Lammert fails to realise is that the Western Balkans would meanwhile not remain idle outside the locked gates. By the time views adjust, the interests in the region could shift to other partners, pulling it further out of sight of the EU.

Izvor Moralic has a BA in Media Communications from Webster University Vienna. He is currently completing a Master’s degree in the Department of Media Studies at Stockholm University, and is a contributor to the Stockholm Journal of International Affairs

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