Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Dutch drop objection to Serbia in EU

Serbia moved a step closer to joining the EU today as the Netherlands withdrew its objection to the accession.

The EU had been in an 18-month deadlock over whether to grant Serbia free trade and association, which is a precursor to membership. The Dutch, who are hosting the international criminal court proceedings against Serbs accused of genocide during the Balkan civil wars, had insisted for more cooperation from Serbia in tracking down war criminals first.

Serbia had argued it legitimately couldn’t find the accused, which seemed doubtful considering many of them were walking around the country in broad daylight. However Serbia recently arrested two key leaders, and apparently that was enough to satisfy Dutch concerns. Though the Dutch foreign affairs minister said the tribunal still needs more cooperation from Serbia.

The issue of Serbia joining the EU has been a tricky one because its geography and history make it a natural candidate, but just a decade ago the country was mired in a brutal civil war and its leaders were perpetrating genocide against their own citizens. For the EU to rule out membership for the foreseeable future would provoke an already hostile Serbian citizenry to elect anti-European, isolationist rulers. However to fast-track EU membership would ignore the horrors committed by Serbia in the 1990’s as well as the festering open issues between it and its neighbours.

The EU has so far taken a carrot-and-stick approach, which seemed to be vindicated in the country’s elections last year when the pro-European party was elected. That razor-thin result was widely attributed to the fact that the EU had brokered a fast-track membership deal with the country a week before.

Right now Serbia is essentially torn between the EU and Russia. Every political party in Serbia opposes independence for the break-away state of Kosovo, and Russia has staunchly supported them in that. Russia would most likely like to see Serbia remain outside of the EU and operate as a key ally in the region – particularly as regards natural gas pipelines. For their part Serbians generally have a high opinion of Russians, unlike their Eastern European neighbours. Though it was Communist, the country was never part of the Warsaw Pact and was therefore never occupied by Soviet forces. And the Serbs still have fond memories of the Russians defending them in World War I (an alliance which triggered that war) against both the Austrians and the Turks.

On the other hand, Serbia recognises that a close relationship with Russia would make it little more than a vassal state. Pro-Western politicians in the country are troubled by this prospect, and would instead like to see Serbia become a prosperous democracy. They are of course also eager to get hold of the EU cohesion funds that would come with membership. And now that the Balkan states are surrounded by the EU, it would be a strange geographic anomaly if they were to remain out of it. However the EU's tepid support of Kosovo's independence is a big sticking point.

Slowly but surely, the Balkan states of the former Yugoslavia will likely join the EU within the next 15 years if all goes according to plan. Croatia is set for membership within the next few years, and Slovenia entered in 2004. Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania and yes, even Kosovo, should round out the group and with the Balkans filled in blue EU accession should stop (assuming Switzerland, Norway and Iceland have joined by then).

For those who argue that the motivation for keeping Turkey out of the EU is Islamophobia, it should be noted that two of these countries (Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina) are Muslim. And no one in EU leadership is ruling them out of serious consideration based on that fact. As geography goes, the accession of the Balkan states is a natural objective. The tricky part is figuring out how to smoothly get this volatile region into the fold.


french derek said...

Hi. A nicely balanced and informative post, thank you. If the Dutch change of position is reflected in even more cooperation on genocide suspects, then it's well worth it. But then, could Serbia be playing an old diplomatic game, in which they give the minimum, the EU pressures Netherlands into giving what is (in reality) quite a lot - then Bosnia waits for another carrot before repeating the process? (Iran are masters at this game).

So far as your last para is concerned, I believe that most EU citizens haven't a clue what the main religion of Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina is. And that probably goes for their heads of state, too.

Julien Frisch said...

Fully agree with french derek, both on the quality of the post and on the Albania/Bosnia-Herzegovina issue.

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