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Europe

Opinion: EU Still Playing Tug-of-War With Balkan States

The EU has resumed negotiations on closer ties with Serbia, despite Belgrade's flop in delivering the remaining war crimes suspects. DW's Bernd Riegert says it's becoming increasingly difficult for the union to expand.

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Belgrade has yet to deliver the remaining war criminals sought by the Hague tribunal

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn has been caught by the wind of opposition coming from some European member states. The current EU enlargement strategy regarding the western Balkan states is increasingly being called into question. But Rehn doesn't get tired of presenting a European perspective as the only path towards stabile and peaceful Balkans.

On the other side, EU Council President and Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, along with numerous German conservatives, prefer to point out the EU's limited capacity for absorption. Some say that even Bulgaria's and Romania's entry into the union, set for 2008 at the latest, is difficult to digest.

Eleven years after the end of the war in Bosnia and seven years after the Kosovo War, the EU is still deeply distrustful of the Balkan states. The EU enlargement commissioner has acknowledged the good will and progress made by the Balkan governments, but the problems of ethnically torn states such as Bosnia and Herzegovina or Serbia-Montenegro are considered to be enormous. Organized crime, human trafficking and corruption are the keywords in almost every discussion about the Balkans in Brussels.

Buying time

Olli Rehn, Porträtfoto

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn

There is no real enthusiasm in Brussels for completing the project of European unification or for Balkan states, from Croatia to Albania, joining the union. Neither the EU foreign ministers nor the commission are in a particular hurry. Olli Rehn made it clear in his enlargement strategy -- announced at the beginning of the year -- that he would like to step on the brakes a bit. He also said that the commission's criteria and conditions should be scrupulously adhered to -- also a way of buying extra time.

The EU's ongoing tug-of-war with the government in Belgrade regarding the arrest of Ratko Mladic -- an alleged war criminal who is wanted by the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague -- should be seen in this context. For a year, the Mladic case has been blocking the official start of stabilization and association talks with Serbia-Montenegro, which is a preliminary step on the way to accession talks.

And even though the EU threatened it would break off negotiations with Serbia unless Mladic was arrested, Rehn has yet again extended his ultimatum for another four weeks. One could play this little game forever, especially with the still unknown whereabouts of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, another alleged war criminal, in the background.

Belgrade has the power to stop the tug-of-war by delivering the last remaining war criminals to the UN tribunal. On the other hand, the EU could also jump over its own shadow and take up negotiations with Serbia; that is, if Belgrade's membership really is close to its heart. In the case of Croatia, accession talks began in October 2005 even though General Ante Gotovina, also wanted for war crimes, had not yet been captured.

The bigger picture

Alltag in der serbischen Provinz Kosovo

Serbia is unwilling to let its impoverished province Kosovo become independent

The European Union is having a particularly hard time with Serbia-Montenegro, NATO's opponent during the Kosovo War. Bosnia and Herzegovina has been participating in intensive stabilization and association talks since the beginning of the year, while Albania has already completed the process. Macedonia has a candidate status, and Croatia is already negotiating the concrete terms for its EU entry.

The talks between the EU and Serbia-Montenegro, which started on Wednesday, will not be substantial. Brussels would like to first wait and see how Serbia-Montenegro conducts itself in regard to finding a solution for the Kosovo question. Will Belgrade be ready to compromise and accept Kosovo's far-reaching independence, which is what most Europeans see as inevitable? Or will Belgrade block it? It has yet to be seen what will actually happen to the Serbian-Montenegrin federation. Montenegrins will vote on independence in a referendum in May.

Enlargement Commissioner Rehn is right to warn about the dangers of being too focused on symbolic dates and negotiations. Neither Serbia's national honor nor Europe's credibility would depend on them. For the Balkan states it's much more important to learn to cooperate better and more openly, in a European spirit. National reconciliation and a free-trade zone in the Balkans are long overdue.

Olli Rehn, in his quiet way, described the task for the Balkans by paraphrasing a famous Kennedy quote: "Don't ask what Europe can do for you; ask what you can do for yourselves and Europe."

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