EU hopes Croatia can be lesson to Balkans and West

575

After years of ambivalence about new members, European Union policymakers are hoping Croatia’s accession to the 27-nation bloc will persuade other aspirants that democratic reforms reap dividends.

The ambition is that Croatia’s progress will show the western Balkans that the EU is still willing to grow and quell concerns that “enlargement fatigue” — rife since the global economic crisis made Europeans wary about the cost of expansion — means reform efforts are futile.

But the message is being carefully crafted.

EU policymakers are wary that too much enthusiasm could alienate Western voters, who might question whether Croatia and its neighbours are being rushed in before democratic reforms take hold and then try to scupper the process, Reuters reports.

Reluctance towards enlargement within the EU has been driven in part by the accession of Romania and Bulgaria, which have since failed to make good on their pledges to continue judicial reforms and effectively tackle corruption.
“EU enlargement is about credibility,” European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso told Croatian President Ivo Josipovic last week, after the EU executive recommended Zagreb is ready for accession in July 2013.

Barroso was repeating what has become a mantra in Brussels.
“Credibility,” he said, was needed “from the candidates in respecting all criteria and enforcing the required reforms, but also credibility on the EU’s side in moving forward once the agreed conditions have been met.”

The push to show other EU hopefuls in the western Balkans that their desire to join the world’s largest trade and economic bloc is realistic is unlikely to translate into faster entry for any of them, however.

The EU will want to see incremental progress on a wide range of issues before it pushes hopefuls on the path towards entry.

Serbia, for example, hopes that the EU will grant it the official status of EU candidate later this year after Belgrade overcome a major obstacle in May by arresting Ratko Mladic, wanted by the United Nations on genocide charges.

But EU officials are clear that Belgrade also needs to make at least small concessions towards Kosovo during its ongoing negotiations on technical cooperation, before it moves forward.

CREDIBLE MESSAGE

For Croatia reforms appear to have paid off.

Only three months ago, the prospect of the country completing entry negotiations this year looked dim: officials in Brussels were clear that judicial reforms were lacking and Croatia simply was not ready.

But Zagreb may now be days away from completing its entry talks and EU leaders are set to give a go-ahead to its accession at a summit on Thursday and Friday.

EU officials say the leap was made possible by an intense reform push that proved the country of 4.4 million people was serious about fighting widespread corruption.

Croatia will be closely monitored in the coming months. It is being privately told its attempt to join could be delayed if it shows signs of slacking while EU parliaments ratify its accession in the run up to July 2013.

Publicly, several EU governments, notably Britain and the Netherlands, are pushing for an agreement providing for recourse in case Zagreb backtracks on reforms before it joins. This could include withholding EU funds, diplomats say.
“It’s an insurance policy. We can monitor until the cows come home. We are looking for teeth,” one EU diplomat said.

But the EU is watching the mood in the region closely and it wants its message heard in the Balkans.
“The EU is in the midst of the worst crisis in its history and this crisis, although an economic one, has its political consequences,” Serbia’s foreign minister Vuk Jeremic said in Belgrade on Monday, highlighting the region’s concerns.
“It means less appetite for … integration.”

Having areas of southeast Europe still beset by ethnic and political tension more than a decade after the Balkans wars ended is an embarrassment to the EU as it tries to show the world it has power and influence and helps its neighbours.
“If the EU cannot succeed in the Balkans, it cannot have global aspirations,” said Rosa Balfour of the European Policy Centre think tank in Brussels. “So when push comes to shove, even the most reluctant EU governments recognise that.”



It is also a security concern for the EU, some politicians warn, because pervasive corruption has bred organised crime and the arms trade, as well as human trafficking at a time when illegal immigration is a rising concern in Europe.
“It is very important that we maintain support for enlargement,” Britain’s Europe minister, David Lidington, told reporters before meeting his counterparts in Luxembourg on Tuesday to discuss Croatia’s accession.
“The alternative is to sit back and accept that parts of southeast Europe will be subject to backward-looking economies and unstable political systems. And that poses risks for those of us who are in the EU.”