Both the EU and NATO are looking ahead at possible membership for Southeast Europe. But western Europe's wariness and a lack of regional cooperation are standing in the way.
Laying the table for further EU expansion?
Europe may be experiencing growth pains from its biggest expansion to date when it took in 10 new members in May 2004. But that isn't stopping Germany from looking at taking on challenges in southeastern Europe when it assumes the presidency of the European Union during the first half of 2007.
Democratic and economic developments in the countries of the former Yugoslavia are not only of interest to the European Union, but to NATO and foreign investors as well, according to Germany's Deputy Foreign Minister Gernot Erler.
Gernot Erler wants stronger regional cooperation in the Balkans
Erler emphasized that "there is no alternative to regional cooperation" in the Balkans, which shouldn't be used as a kind of stalling tactic against integration. "We need the cooperation of the political leaders to counteract these conspiracy theories."
Several pressing issues are putting regional cooperation to the test. On May 21, the citizens of Montenegro will decide via referendum whether to maintain its union with Serbia or claim independence. Serbia also faces the possibility of losing the province of Kosovo, a solution favored by the ethnic Albanian majority there, when its status is finally decided this year.
Serbian President Boris Tadic said Wednesday in a statement that he was "worried by every slow down on the road to European integration…because it directly affects our citizens' wish for a prosperous future."
Montenegro proposed holding a referendum to decide the fate of the former Yugoslavian republic
Everyone seems to have their eye on the integration of southeastern Europe, though with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
"The EU and NATO have the same things in mind for the region," said James Pardew from NATO headquarters in Brussels. "The first one is integration. In the Balkans, NATO and the EU are championing the same values -- democracy, rule of law and economic development."
For this reason, said Albania's acting Minister of Defense Petrit Karabina, "the Albanian government and society are making an effort to combine these elements in a common strategy."
Stumbling blocks remain
But hurdles remain. Serbia's recent failure to hand over alleged war criminal Radko Mladic is a major obstacle on its path to EU accession. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn announced Wednesday that negotiations with Serbia on a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) had been suspended because Serbia had not arrested the Bosnian Serb military leader, who has been at large since 1995.
Cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), located in The Hague, is a prerequisite for drawing closer to the European Union. Serbia and Montenegro, along with Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a potential candidate country for the EU. Croatia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia are the only two candidates for EU accession among the countries of former Yugoslavia, while Slovenia became an EU member in 2004.
EU and NATO pursue different goals
The EU and NATO may be striving for the same result in Southeast Europe but to differing ends, according to Dusan Reljic, Southeast Europe expert at the Foundation for Science and Politics in Berlin.
"The EU is a system that spans various areas of life, economics, society and culture," he said. "NATO is not a political instrument to solve things but a technical military instrument." Because of this fundamental difference, Reljic added he doesn't see the need to "directly pair the issues."
Croatia, Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia belong to NATO's Membership Action Plan, which makes them candidate countries for NATO membership.
Hans-Gert Pöttering of Germany will tackle integration in southeastern Europe and other issues facing the EU, such as the Constitutional Framework and the financial crisis, when he takes over the presidency of the European Parliament from Josep Borrell Fontelles in January 2007. The president serves a term of 30 months.