Rüdiger Rossig | Journalist | Novinar

Balkan balancing act

Croatia is the last country with a firm EU accession date. The crisis-hit Union needs a consolidation period – also in the interests of potential future members | By Rüdiger Rossig

On July 1, 2013, Croatia will become the 28th member of the European Union. Or perhaps not? Nine months before Croatia’s accession date, Norbert Lammert (CDU), President of the German parliament, told the Berlin newspaper Welt am Sonntag that this part of ex-Yugoslavia was “apparently not yet ready.” That was what the latest progress report from the EU Commission showed, he said.

Croatia was shocked. Germany has long been regarded as one of its traditional allies, and not just among the long-dominant nationalist spectrum. Non-nationalist media were also critical. “Novosti” (News), the weekly organ of the Serbian minority carried the headline: “Bashing from the Reich.” When Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991, Germany was the first to recognize it. And now this. Many Croatians felt betrayed by the Germans.

But there was no need to feel that way, for neither Lammert nor anyone else among the German political elite has anything against Croatia joining the EU. On the contrary: “Croatia has already fulfilled a considerable portion of the criteria,” Lammert said only a few days later, during a podium discussion at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the Green’s think-tank. “That sets this country favorably apart from other countries at a comparable point in time.”

Lammert explicitly rejected any discussion of postponing the date of Croatia’s accession. Rightly so, since the issues that remain open are technical and administrative. They have to do with border posts, improvements in the judiciary and administrative apparatus, privatizing the shipyards – in all, ten points. In the previous report, there were 49.

It is right and proper that Lammert and the EU demand of Croatia that it fulfill these final demands. It is also in the interest of future EU citizens from Croatia that the mistakes made in conjunction with other states’ acceding to the EU not be repeated.

In Bulgaria and Romania, for example, previously agreed-upon requirements were insufficiently verified. Local elites had no reason to continue reforming their states along EU lines. As a result, both countries have the worst records in the EU – whether on wages, fighting corruption or the quality of the judiciary.

Because the EU knows this, the accession process was changed. The progress report Lammert referred to is part of a new monitoring process. Until a country finally joins, the EU Commission must ascertain every six months what accession conditions still need to be fulfilled. Thus far, Croatia has moved forward with flying colors.

The EU Parliament sees it that way as well. But there is concern that the majority of Croatians, according to Eurobarometer surveys, do not see any advantage in belonging to the EU. In fact, 40 percent are even against it. Local dairy farmers have threatened to block border crossings, as they fear their market will be flooded with cheap products once Croatia joins the EU.

Croatia has other problems that go unmentioned in the progress report. Seventeen years after the end of the region’s wars, Croatian society remains deeply divided. There is a lingering schism between nationalists and those who yearn for the old Yugoslavia. Enormous income inequalities exacerbate the situation. The state administration is corrupt and one ex-Prime Minister is languishing in jail. Even so, large parts of the population do not believe corruption is being seriously addressed or fought.

About one-third of Croatia is very thinly populated. The former residents, largely members of the Serb minority, fled ahead of the fighting in 1995, and to this day have not returned. In the rest of the country, economic life has stagnated in the wake of the Eurozone crisis. Many people work on the black market, and tax discipline is weak.

In addition, Croatia has difficult neighbors. Bosnia-Herzegovina faces collapse, also 17 years’ after the war ended there. Its relationship to neighboring Serbia is poisonous. Though Serbia was never officially at war with Bosnia, it massively influences policy and politics in the Serb-dominated parts of the country. And Serbian elites themselves have, even 13 years on, not come to terms with the loss of majority ethnic-Albanian Kosovo. Montenegro is regarded as a paradise for smugglers, and both Macedonia and Albania are seen as safe havens for criminals.

The lack of progress in this complex, seemingly hopeless tangle, is partly the EU’s fault. Since the 2003 summit in Thessaloniki, the EU has been making promises to the ex-Yugoslav states, as well as to Albania, a country that remained Stalinist until 1990. But other than Slovenia’s accession in 2004 and Croatia’s upcoming accession, not much has happened in the region now referred to as the Western Balkans.

Skepticism about the EU has long since spread across this region, particularly since Croatia’s accession will have considerable effects on its neighbors. Zlatko Dizdarevic, a Bosnian journalist, diplomat and policy analyst points out that Neum, Bosnia’s only town on the Adriatic, will cut right across EU territory as of July 1, 2013.

“If an external EU border is created at Neum without a reasonable agreement beforehand, then Bosnia will be unable to export much more than raw animal hides and fish to the EU,” Dizdarevic said. “Overnight, a new Mafia will emerge that will immediately start smuggling Bosnian cheese, by the truckload, into Croatia. And then they’ll start in on much more serious activities.”

Croatia has earned its entry, and its accession serves to stimulate efforts by other Western Balkan states to join the EU, Dizdarevic believes. As a member of the Sarajevo Foreign Policy Initiative, he wrote an analysis of the consequences of Croatia’s accession, in which he warns that it could also disrupt decades of fragile coexistence.

Many neighboring states regard Croatia’s accession not as an expansion of the EU, however, but as taking leave of the Western Balkans. For the countries left behind, only two possibilities remain: “Either they will be given opportunities to also become part of the EU’s system of coordination – or they will have to look for other geostrategic options,” Dizdarevic said.

Three large powerful players might be interested: Russia, China and Turkey. The increasing role of non-European powers is less a problem for the region than it is for the EU, which cannot have an interest in seeing ex-Yugoslavia and Albania enter into long-term close relationships with other states. After all, even as a member of the EU, Croatia remains in the Balkans and the Balkans remain part of Europe.

Norbert Lammert knows this only too well. “Croatia is not the end of the line with respect to EU expansion,” he said at the Heinrich Böll Foundation. “The integration process will lead to the accession of new member states. We should complete this process not as quickly as possible but as soundly as possible.”

Before Europe considers new members, it needs to address its own imbalance between economic and political integration. It is clear that uniting some EU states around a common currency cannot function without a common financial policy, a common system of taxation and common budgeting practices. Political integration must follow economic integration – and precede taking in new members.

Zlatko Dizdarevic from Bosnia certainly agrees: “There can be no common currency without common politics and policies. The EU must resolve this problem before new members are accepted.” But before that, the relationship of the EU to the Western Balkan states needs to be resolved: The mixed signals coming from the EU are only exacerbating conflicts.

“Here people think Germany loves Croatia, France loves Serbia, and Turkey loves a part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. If this doesn’t change soon, then in two years’ time – on the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo – we will have the same geostrategic situation we had back then.”

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