Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle kicks off a tour of the Balkans in Croatia, a country eager to join the European Union. Westerwelle had words of encouragement but said accession rules would remain firm.
Westerwelle faces a diplomatic challenge in the Balkans
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle met with Croatian leaders in Zagreb on Wednesday, kicking off his three-day trip to the Balkans.
On arrival, Westerwelle met with President Ivo Josipovic, Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor and Foreign Minister Gordan Jandrokovic. He then gave a speech to the Academy of Sciences encouraging the country to make the necessary reforms for European Union accession.
"If Croatia musters all its strength for the final sprint, then [EU] membership could be wrapped up soon, perhaps as soon as next year," Westerwelle said. He added, however, that there would be no concessions on the accession criteria, especially in light of this year's Greek budget crisis.
"If we loosened the rules, we would only sow concerns about taking on new members."
Croatia is set to join the EU in 2012, and is seen as the least problematic Balkan country seeking accession. Westerwelle praised Croatia for recently resolving a border conflict with Slovenia, the only country from the former Yugoslavia that has joined the union.
On Thursday, Westerwelle travels to the Serbian capital of Belgrade, where he will face the tricky task of dissuading Serbia from seeking a new United Nations resolution on the status of Kosovo.
"He won't put too much pressure on Serbia," Westerwelle's spokesman Stephan Bredohl, who is traveling with him, told Deutsche Welle.
Kosovo's independence is in line with international law
"But we're very clear on Kosovo: Germany has accepted its independence and it's very important for us that if Serbia wants to join the European Union, it needs to be constructive and toe the EU's line, " he explained.
Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and is now officially recognized by 69 countries. In July, the International Court of Justice, which Serbia had called on to rule on Kosovo's status, declared that its declaration of independence was in line with international law. Serbia refuses to accept the verdict, pressing instead for a UN resolution to reopen talks on the status of what it considers the Serbian province of Kosovo.
Germany was one of the first countries to recognize Kosovo as an independent state. Five EU member states, however, do not recognize Kosovo, meaning the EU cannot make it a precondition for Serbia to join the EU.
Deadlock in Bosnia
Westerwelle is also to visit Bosnia-Herzegovina on Thursday. Nearly 15 years after the Dayton peace agreement, which ended the fighting and split Bosnia-Herzegovina into two largely autonomous entities, the political situation there remains challenging. Many Serbs, Muslims and Croats remain pitted against each other ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for October 3.
Dodik seeks independence for Bosnian Serbs
While the ruling on Kosovo by the International Court of Justice was well-received in Germany, it has also fanned the flames of separatism in the Republika Srpska (RS), the mainly Serb Bosnian entity.
Its leader Milorad Dodik has threatened secession from Bosnia since he came into power in 2006. After the verdict on Kosovo, he declared that he would start discussions on independence after the elections.
"In Bosnia, the foreign minister's visit will be largely symbolic and he will try to call on voters to be moderate," Bodo Weber, an expert on the region at The Democratization Policy Council, told Deutsche Welle.
Focus on the region
Germany has been criticized for not making the Balkans a focus of its foreign policy, not least because it did not send a representative to the EU-Balkan summit in Sarajevo in June. Many are hoping Westerwelle's trip will change that.
"These countries [in the Balkans] are already part of Europe, that's why their problems are our problems," said Bernd Posselt, MEP for Germany's Christian Social union (CSU) in Brussels.
"I would hope that the foreign minister will not just see this trip as a photo opportunity, but see it as the start of a much greater focus of his foreign policy," he added.
Author: Nicole Goebel, Holly Fox (dpa/AFP/Reuters)
Editor: Martin Kuebler