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Sunday, 12 July 2015

On Hold – Why the Western Balkans should wait for EU Membership

While Europe struggles to sort out the Greek crisis and the endless drama enters the next stage, German chancellor Angela Merkel was on a short visit in the Western Balkan states last week, especially to Albania and Serbia. On the agenda: the possibilities for a future EU membership. In detail, Merkel and even Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi are currently advocating for an accelerated accession process of Albania and Serbia.

During her visit, Merkel promised both countries a future membership in the EU and encouraged both of them for their reforms of the past years in order to fulfil the chapters of the Aquis Communautaire – the compulsory criteria framework to access the EU in the future. After Slovenia and Croatia, Serbia would be the third former Yugoslav republic to join the EU, and Albania would complete its integration after joining NATO in 2009.

It is rather astonishing that the EU considers a further enlargement while it is heading towards the crossroads of a “Grexit” with unpredictable consequences. Also, it sounds rather surprising that countries consider EU Membership while EU-Scepticism is rising in many member states.

The strategic perspective
Merkel’s visit to Serbia and Albania was not for the pure “keep the EU attractive” purpose, nor for the presumable economic benefits for the candidate countries. In fact, strategic reasons to minimize potential Russian influence in the Western Balkans are the main motivation for promising EU-Membership to these countries.

Many EU leaders are concerned that countries like Russia, Turkey or Saudi Arabia could use the Western Balkan countries in order to expand their influence on them and – from a Russian perspective – to deviate the existing sanction regime imposed by the EU.

Earlier this year, President Vladimir Putin had attended Serbia’s World War 2 Victory Parade in Belgrade, and Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic had also attended the annual Victory Parade on Moscow’s Red Square this 9th May. For Russia, Serbia is an opportunity to keep a door open to Europe, while Serbia sees Russia as its most important partner in the wider Eastern European region. This is nothing new as Serbia and Russia have close historic links, but regarding Serbia’s own ambitions to join the EU in the future and the sanctions the EU has imposed on Russia, Serbia finds itself tangled between both. Probably – but only as a thought – Serbia could function as a link between the EU (if it acquires membership) and Russia. Conceivably, Russia might gamble for this opportunity to resume normalized relations to the EU.

However, the EU leaders are aware of these close links but terrified that Russia could use Serbia as a linking bridge to expand its influence. Horrified by this scenario, Merkel tries to forestall Russia and promise a quick accession to the EU. But if this accession might happen or if Serbia would be able to fulfil all the Aquis Communautaire chapters in the near future, these questions remain open.

The not overcome shadows of the 90ies
Last Saturday, the commemoration of the Srebrenica massacre was marked by an unpleasant surprise for Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic when stones were thrown at him during his visit in Bosnia Herzegovina. Earlier this week, the EU had declared the Srebrenica massacre as genocide and readdressed the responsibilities Europe has to take to prevent future atrocities on the continent. This incident also proves that the tensions in the former Yugoslav republics are still high and that Serbia has to take own historic responsibilities to overcome the trauma of the civil wars of the 1990ies.

The Srebrenica massacre still marks an open wound for the whole region, but in particular for Bosnia Herzegovina, which is marked by inner quarrels as Milorad Dodik, President of the Republic of Sprska within the state of Bosnia Herzegovina, denies to recognize Srebrenica as genocide. Furthermore, Dodik strongly advocates a separation of the Republic of Sprska from Bosnia and Herzegovina, stating that Bosnia Herzegovina is a “Concentration Camp for the Serbian people”. It is questionable if Dodik has backup from Belgrade regarding a potential separation, but the reactions during the commemorations last Saturday have shown, that there are still looming hostilities among Bosnians and Serbs. With this conflict potential in mind, it is doubtful that an accelerated EU membership of Serbia could defuse the tensions, or even bring more tensions to the then EU member Serbia and the non-member Bosnia Herzegovina. Also, the EU policy makers would have to morally justify why Serbia would be given a privilege over other Balkan countries.

As a side note: during a meeting of the UN Security Council last week, Russia had vetoed a resolution to classify the Srebrenica massacre as genocide. At least, Serbia has another significant backup in this aspect.

Furthermore, the unsolved disputed issue of Kosovo needs to be mentioned. As Serbia still denies recognition of Kosovo as an independent country, negotiations will maintain difficult during the accession negotiations. Solving the Kosovo issue is a key requirement to continue negotiations and Serbia needs to change its position regarding the newest country in Europe, and in the end accept political reality.

The economic figures – Repeating mistakes from the past?
Looking at the region economically, the EU would potentially gain more crisis countries in the future. Albania has a GDP performance of about 12 billion US-Dollars and is considered as one of the poorest countries in Europe, with an unemployment rate of 16 %. With Serbia, even though its GDP is 45.5 billion US-Dollars – but decreasing, its unemployment rate is 22 % and therefore one of the highest in Europe. In comparison, Greece’s current GDP is around 242 US dollars and its unemployment peaks at 27.3 %; Spain on the other hand has a GDP of 1.4 trillion US dollars and also a high unemployment rate of more than 26 %.

Even the future prospects are bleak, Standard & Poor’s rated Serbia a BB- with a negative outlook, while Albania’s rating is just slightly better, B+. In comparison to the other former Yugoslav republics that are members of the EU, Croatia’s rating is a BB+, Slovenia’s even an A-.

The economic outlook indicates that the EU would enlarge itself by more crisis countries and face even bigger economic challenges in the future. In the view of the now permanent Greek crisis with its still unsure outcome for Grexit or no Grexit, economy should have a bigger say for future enlargement plans.

Panic action rather than common sense
Accession to the EU due to geopolitical reasons usually comes at a high price. When Greece joined the EEC in 1981, it also happened due to the US’ strong encouragement (or pressure), for facilitated strategic access to the Eastern Mediterranean. As it turns out, geopolitical motivation for accession to the EU might end up very costly, and the EU should reconsider the figures and feasibility of new EU members in the future. A hasty enlargement at this time (especially monetarily and economically) would just increase the economic challenges and for now, consolidation inside the existing EU-28 and (for now) Euro-19 should be the main objective.

Albania, Serbia, and the other future potential members like Bosnia Herzegovina, Macedonia or Montenegro – or probably even Kosovo – need to wait.

But as usual, hasty started political actions overrule common sense.

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