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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 29:43–50.


The Dilemmas of the Southeast European (West Balkan) Policy of the EU


In 2003 the European Union gave green light to all the West Balkans countries to accession. In Thessaloniki the road was opened, at least on paper, towards full membership. If it is examined, however, where the different countries stand along that road now, various grades have to be distinguished. If Romania and Bulgaria are also included in the Balkans and we do not only speak about the Western Balkans, moreover, if we also include Greece and Slovenia under this heading, we will see that this process started with the accession of Greece a quarter of a century ago, in 1981. This chain continued after more than two decades with the accession of Slovenia in 2004, and of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007. Those (currently) outside represent various grades of the process of integration. Croatia began talks in 2005. There are various hopes and ideas about when those processes can be completed. Macedonia has actually completed the phase prior to accession but it is still not given a date up to now for the beginning of accession talks. When the European Union elaborated its Balkan policy it practically launched a stabilisation and association process, as a result of which the so-called stabilisation and association agreements may be concluded. Such an agreement was already signed with Albania, and as a result of rapid talks it is waiting for ratification with Montenegro. Bosnia and Herzegovina could have also reached this stage, if the internal reform concerning the police was accomplished up to the deadline of March 2007. Since it is missing that ‘entity’ of the Western Balkans remains on the waiting list. Talks have begun with Serbia too in several phases. Since the Serbs did not extradite all war criminals, though it was one of the basic preconditions of the above accord, the European Union terminated negotiations in May 2006. Now they have been reopened but the conditions did not change. Further on, there is one area, namely Kosovo, with which the Union has no institutional relationship whatsoever for the time being.1 Thus an extremely broad and colourful fabric unfolds, the management of which simultaneously requires the assessment of merits and individual progress and the maintenance of a certain extent of critical mass of regional stability. No doubt that any diversion from it could cause serious problems of balance, either in the form of social tension in countries producing better results or between countries on a regional level.

In my introduction I wish to mention that these countries, and now I only refer to the West Balkans, practically cannot be treated by the analogy of Central and Eastern European development. There are several areas that draw different paths of development; consequently they require different sets of tools and occasionally even different aims.

One basic question is whether there are any states capable of functioning in the Western Balkans, whether such states have emerged. Croatia can be regarded as a state capable of functioning. There are, however, weak countries next to it, like Macedonia and Montenegro. There are international protectorates such as Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. And there is a fragmentary country, Serbia which has been experiencing its own Trianon in these years. Its consequences, as it is known from Hungarian history and from the development of social consciousness, usually do not disappear within half a generation.

All in all, it is not developed nation-states that wish to accede to the European Union, but countries just building their state and experiencing successful or failing processes during that process. At the same time the economic and social transformation is not taking place along the Eastern and Central European pattern either because all those countries live in the captivity of the ex-Yugoslav economic mechanism even today, which is one of the highly dangerous traps of further development, either with regard to trade policy, the reception of foreign direct capital, or several legal regulations. All this is the legacy of the successful Yugoslavia of the seventies, which was said to be a success in the then divided Europe. This, however, and this is the trap situation, has become an element expressly pulling back, a retrograde factor hindering development in a unifying Europe. This situation (should) be overcome by all the West Balkan states. The differences are obvious if one views the Czech Republic, Hungary or Slovakia, not mentioning the others. The differences are clear in respect of the volume and structure of exports, in the balance of foreign trade, in the role of foreign capital, but also in the structural transformation of domestic economy (or rather in the lack of it), in the philosophy and practice of privatisation, in the size of unemployment, in migration, etc.

Finally, the question emerges how far it is possible to build the state and meet those criteria of the European Union simultaneously that would require a modern, functioning institutional structure of the West European type. It is a question whether the building of the state, i.e. the building of a successfully functioning state, would be accelerated by the promise of membership, namely, would it be speeded up in the right structure, or would it rather create an institutional vacuum because those countries are unable to meet the requirements due to their internal conditions and shortcomings, at least for the time being?

The dilemmas of the Union can be practically grouped around two major sets of questions. One is the regatta principle, and the other one is the principle of conditionality. The regatta principle is based on the fact that there are several countries at different levels of development among which differentiation is to be made on the basis of merits. This kind of differentiation, however, may contradict the requirement of regional stability. Therefore, if one country steps forward the other country is also given some kind of bonus irrespective of whether it has accomplished some result or not. A typical case was the opening of talks with Croatia, which was strongly linked to the ratification of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Albania, with a country that had by far not fulfilled the requirements that are supposed to be met before the conclusion of the agreement only three months earlier, as the documents of the Commission of the European Union showed.

Remaining still with the regatta principle, a further question is how far the European Union approach can be applied that had functioned so well in Central and Eastern Europe, in the case of which the European Union as an anchor of external modernisation, stabilisation and development played a highly important role in achieving that those economic, social and institutional changes had taken place rapidly, as a result of which full membership became possible. It is not sure that this process would function in the same way in the Balkans. It is not sure that rewarding and punishing would always have the same effect as in Central Europe. In case someone is excessively punished or someone who should be rewarded cannot receive reward because of the priority of regional stability, the credibility of the European Union will be endangered. European integration may even become captive of its own Balkan policy in a pitched situation. A classic example of it was the erosion and even reversal of the principle, which is associated with the name of Michael Steiner, the former High Representative in Kosovo. He was quite clear when he stated that the countries of the region had to fulfil standards and observe certain rules at first. One could only talk about the issue of status, i.e. the institutional status of relations with the European Union if those preconditions were met. In reality, however, this order (standards before status) was not realised and not even its reverse (status before standards) was accomplished, but a condition of ‘status without standards’ was achieved.

It is commonly known that the enlargement policy of the EU was linked to certain conditions right from the outset. There were two of them in the Treaty of Rome. One condition was that the country had to be a European one, and the other one was that only a democratic country could accede.

These criteria were extended already before the accession talks with Central and Eastern European countries in Copenhagen in 1993. There were many more requirements to be met, as it is reflected by the Copenhagen criteria well known by all. Further on, the opening of talks with Bulgaria and Romania in early 2000 were made a precondition of whether Romanian and Bulgarian politics were ready to meet the requirements of the European Union in some specific areas. In Bulgaria it was the closing down of the nuclear power station, a highly debated issue to this day, and in Romania it was the issue of the orphanages.

It is natural that the criteria of admission to the European Union have been constantly changing. They are changing because the European Union itself is developing. The so-called acquis communautaire has been expanding and the later a country accedes, the more community legal regulations it has to accept. This was experienced also by Hungary during the accession talks. We had to negotiate about a community law of 90 thousand pages while Spain and Portugal had to wade through ‘only’ 40 thousand pages (of which issues related to agriculture alone constituted 36 thousand pages). Today the collection of legal norms extends over 120 thousand pages and it would only grow further in the coming years.

Another reason of the requirements becoming more rigorous and extensive is that the more states are members of the European Union the more autonomous, specific interests can be formulated, which have to be fitted somehow into the set of community criteria. In addition, and naturally not the least, the experiences of the latest enlargement are also incorporated in the set of criteria that countries wishing to accede in the future will have to face. In this context I wish to stress that Hungary, but also Bulgaria and Romania having acceded in 2007 have a major responsibility in how the set of criteria of the European Union and its absorption capacity would change in the coming years towards the countries of the Western Balkans. Thus the process of admission is not only the problem of the Western Balkans, because we are all in the same boat.

No doubt the specific Western Balkan situation has itself created a series of additional criteria that did not figure in our case, in the case of Central Europe. Political criteria have become far more rigorous with regard to the wars, the ethnic issues and the weak states in respect of corruption and organised crime. The conditions of the re-admittance of refugees also had to be fulfilled, not to mention the International Court of Justice of The Hague. Moreover, regional free trade among the countries of the region also figured as a precondition. The realisation of free trade among CEFTA countries was a recommendation in the official documents of the European Union, but it was not a precondition for the opening of negotiations or for their successful conclusion. In this respect (too) the changes of admission criteria are significant.

The so-called questions of detail are added to this, i.e. seemingly technical issues yet fundamentally influencing the process of negotiations. It is worth having a look at the current matrix of the accession talks with Croatia. Those negotiations have 12 phases. They include things like the benchmarks that a chapter can only be opened if prior to that the Croats have met certain requirements. And they can only be closed if the country complies with further conditions. In the Hungarian, Polish, Czech, etc. cases the deadline for the realisation of some of the conditions was the moment of accession, and in some cases even the transitory period after the acquisition of membership.

Last, but not the least an inevitable factor of the accession of the West Balkan countries to the EU is the constant change of European public opinion. Currently a rather widespread basis of reference against further enlargement is the so-called ‘enlargement fatigue’. It is a difficult task to explain to and make understood by a significant part of West European public opinion that here it is not so much enlargement fatigue what is involved but rather West European inability to reform. Naturally, it is always easier to find external scapegoats instead of facing one’s own problems and to cast the blame on enlargement for the reform difficulties. The experiences of the years after 2004 do not at all support the view (or feeling) according to which the ‘fatigue’ of the European Union was provoked by problems and bottlenecks of European processes caused directly by enlargement.

One could devote more attention to the possibility of complying with requirements and the right proportions among the various preconditions but I cannot go into further details due to the lack of time. Yet I wish to stress a few points. One dilemma arises from the mutual relationship and order of stabilisation and the readiness for integration. Is this relationship based on the fact that European integration would ensure the necessary stability? Or is it only possible to move forward significantly towards integration after the achievement of adequate stability? According to the present rules of the European Union, protectorates, in other words not fully authorised states cannot be members of the Union. Could, then, this status of protectorate be wound up without the risk of grave instability in the case of Bosnia, and particularly, of Kosovo in the foreseeable future?

A further dilemma and a basic issue of contention for long years between the World Bank and the European Commission is the sequencing of catching-up. The starting point of the World Bank is that at first a country has to reach a certain level of economic development which would allow for the establishment of modern institutions. The European Union practically gives far reaching priority to the establishment of proper Union-conform institutions on its list of requirements. In reality a course of institutional development may create a significant economic vacuum in the case of a rather backward country. In other words, institutions can be set up but they cannot be filled with meaningful economic and social content. Another difference which holds true for us as well as for several other EU member countries is the contradiction between nominal and real convergence. A large proportion of the West Balkan countries do meet nominal convergence criteria of the Maastricht Treaty, but they will hardly be able to develop a competitive production and export structure in the foreseeable future (with the exception of tourism in some cases). Real convergence does not function at all while nominal convergence may function much better than, say, in the case of Hungary (where, as it is commonly known, between 2004 and 2007 did not function at all).

Is it true that regional free trade would eliminate problems and would heal the wounds of war, would moderate ethnic tensions and bring together the countries of the region? Money is known to be a great power and available money is capable of integrating markets as well as people and ideas. But it functions only if regional trade represents a decisively large proportion in the economic growth and social product of the various countries. This is not the case there. The countries of the Western Balkans are basically interested in free trade with the European Union because they carry out the vast majority of their export (of modest volume compared to Hungary) and import (of somewhat bigger volume) with the Union. The question is not only whether a framework agreement can be filled by goods and services. Sometimes goods and services are available but what happens to their flow if physical permeability among the countries is not ensured? In the disintegrated ex-Yugoslavia there are hardly any border crossing points. Customs officers play their little tricks against each other. Occasionally difficulties of visas crop up in the way of the very conclusion of a business contract. Here I do not refer to the national protectionist obstacles that we could also list in large numbers from the period of ‘free trade’ experienced in CEFTA. A true free trade came into existence only after our accession to the EU in May 2004. As a result, trade among the new member countries has grown by leaps and bounds during the past three years. The exports of Hungary to the countries that had acceded together with us in 2004 (without Bulgaria and Romania as yet) grew from 7.5 to 13% within the total of exports. Meanwhile the balance of trade with the given region turned from a deficit of 500 million euros to 1.2 billion surpluses. (This is a minor contribution to domestic debates about Hungarian competitiveness.)

The visa policy of the European Union is yet another dilemma. There are countries the citizens of which can freely go to the Member States of the European Union. Not only the newly acceded Romania and Bulgaria belong to this circle but Croatia as well, being the only one among the Western Balkan countries. At the same time there are highly different visa policies within the region itself. For instance, visa is compulsory for Albanians wherever they want to go, even within the region. It is a problem of equal importance with respect to the future, and it is often stated, primarily by Serbs, that 80% of the younger generations have not been in Western Europe. If we wish to create the generation of the future and its European contacts and European consciousness, this is not necessarily an ideal letter of reference. Generally speaking the view in relation to visa politics is that visas are needed because of corruption, international crime, etc. General experience, on the other hand, is that international crime usually has access to visas while the vast majority of ordinary citizens have not (or only with the help of corruption). With this logic, therefore, we practically punish honest citizens, an overwhelming proportion of the population of those countries, and in reality we are unable to screen the drug and arms trade and human trafficking which does not only have a supply side (see the West Balkan or Middle Eastern smuggling flowing through the Western Balkans) but also a demand side in various EU Member States. Without effective demand these flows in fact could not develop. Therefore I wish to see that the general policy of the European Union and its specific Balkan policy considered analysing and controlling not only the supply but also the demand side. For instance, on what grounds do Albanian networks of prostitution operate in London? Is the British police unable to intervene? Is that only an Albanian task?

It is a highly significant issue with respect the future how the various West Balkan countries interpret national sovereignty and the transfer of some of its segments to the European Union just because of the different experiences of building the state, of reasons of social psychology and others? This went on relatively smoothly in the new Member States, because a large part of the countries, including the political leaders and a large part of the population comprehended that they would not simply pass over certain national competencies, but in reality a shared sovereignty would be realised as a result of which the new Member States and citizens of the European Union would have access to several new opportunities they did not have earlier. This process, however, has not been completed in Central Europe either, as it is shown by the Polish example up to November 2007 or as the related manifestations of the Czech President Vaclav Klaus indicates. In Hungary too, one can hear undertones and louder ones as well that are not Europe-friendly and ‘Europe-conform’.

Finally, I am convinced that it is a basic issue with respect to the future how the European Union envisages its own future and its role in the Western Balkans. The Western Balkans and the policy of the European Union in this respect have both reached a crossroads. Will the Union create stability as a neo-colonialist power, for instance by protectorates for a long time to come, because it is forced to do so by the current instability of the Western Balkans? What kind of a European Union is projected by the recently emerging and strengthening processes – from economic patriotism to challenging the various community policies – as the stabiliser or anchor of the Western Balkans? It is also basically unknown what the future of the Western Balkans would be after the ‘settlement’ of the issue of Kosovo? For no matter what kind of ‘settlement’ would ensue, it will have consequences. There is no realistic plan of settlement, should Kosovo remain autonomous, split up, or should something else be invented, that would not have an essential impact on the entire region, but first of all on Serbia and Albania (and naturally on the Republika Srpska).

Despite all problems, uncertainties and rightful question marks, the Union should offer clear conditions and a timetable. The Balkan strategy cannot be separated from the Community strategy as a whole. It might be the first years of the presence of the EU in the Balkans as a power of settlement and stabilisation that would create what is so very much missing from the road leading to a common European foreign and security policy. The positive scenario is based on the fact that it would be precisely the handling (and the possibility of the management) of the Balkan problems by the Union that would help deepening the processes of integration in the key area of common foreign and security policy. Naturally, there are worse perspectives as well. The ‘prophecy’ of the former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato (who heads the International Commission on the Balkans and annually issues a report) in the spring of 2006 is still valid. According to him the future of the European Union was not determined by the failed French and Dutch referenda. The future of the European Union will be decided primarily in the Balkans and depends on what role the European Union can play there in the coming period.


* Director, Institute for World Economics, HAS



After the September 2007 conference the accord between the EU and Montenegro was ratified in October, and the document between the EU and Serbia was brought into a preratification stage.