Regional Stability and State Building within the EU Frame in South East Europe
Despite all their present differences, divisions and animosities stemming from the past, the post-communist countries of the Balkans share the same vision about their future, which has been a wish to become members of the European family within the institutional frame of the European Union. Certainly, enormous differences have emerged amongst the former Republics of ex-Yugoslavia regarding their progress towards EU membership by the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Accession to the European Union is seen not only as the guarantee of economic prosperity and democratic order, but also as a solution to unresolved statehood issues. Many in the region agree about the fact that EU integration is the key condition, which can create peaceful and stable borders and can lock the region into a virtuous circle of long term security and development.
Concerning the states of the Western Balkans, they face not only the difficult task to manage political and economic transition, but they also have to resolve the still open statehood problems, which are clearly one of the biggest sources of potential instability. Politicians and experts within and outside the region increasingly view EU membership as the only chance to establish lasting peace in South East Europe, including undisputed borders. Participating in the enlargement process affects state building in two different ways fundamentally:
Consolidating state borders
First, the chance for membership puts the whole question of statehood into a new light. While deciding upon the future of Kosovo, for instance, it became natural to think about the desired status from the perspective of future EU accession. The question often asked is what kind of regime would ensure the fastest track of Kosovo into the European Union. For the same reason, Kosovar Albanian politicians have broadly accepted the need for having an EU led civilian institution overseeing the implementation of the status agreement, which would seriously limit Kosovo’s sovereignty, however, would bring Kosovo closer to EU-membership. In Bosnia-Herzegovina the requirements to create a unified state police and to carry out further institutional reforms so that the country would meet the conditions of a modern European state, have been presented as conditions to bring the country’s relations with the EU to a higher stage, that of signing a Stabilization and Association Agreement. In Macedonia the implementation of the Ohrid framework agreement has been greatly encouraged by the aspiration and the promise of eventual EU-membership. It seems that EU involvement and the promise of EU accession have had a moderating effect in conflict situations and could “change the stakes in the game”, where the goal of creating an ethnic-state is challenged by the wish for becoming part of the EU.
State building from within - pushing for a candidate status
Second, being part of the enlargement process motivates countries to push through painful economic and political reforms and to establish stable democratic institutions. During negotiating a Stabilization and Association Agreement or latter accession, the EU gains a considerable leverage over the policy making process, by not only putting pressure on but through granting assistance and guidance to governments to build institutions and implement reforms. Thus, having the chance of taking part in the enlargement process is as important as reaching the goal of membership itself.
However, attaining a candidate status relatively soon would be an imperative for all states of the Western Balkans. The EU launches its member state building process in candidate countries, igniting fundamental political, economic and social transformation in the respective states. State institutions, legislation, policies and standards have to be changed while adopting the acqui communautaire, consequently functions of government institutions are being reviewed, old policies reformed, existing structures upgraded. The process is more than a technical transformation, it also involves the adoption of European norms and rules. Moreover, regional and rural development policies are being created, while the EU boosts the country’s absorption capacity to prepare it for the reception of the EU’s structural and cohesion funds. Unlike aid, these funds accelerate as the country approaches its membership status. Clearly, EU candidacy ensures the most efficient way of state building, thus achieving a candidate status is in the best interest of all those states that have not reached this stage yet. The same applies to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, which are under international protectorates. Since international protectorates substitute for rather than build domestic capacity - even if they are managed by the EU -, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo should make all the effort to qualify for the type of EU engagement, which entails member state building.
Being a voice in the desert.
Yet, the prospect of European integration has not proved powerful enough as a force to ensure that the countries would not divert from the pro-European track. The unresolved statehood problems keep fueling nationalist tensions and nationalist parties still enjoy considerable support, which carries the danger of distracting these countries from the European path. Although the number of EUFOR troops stationed in Bosnia-Herzegovina will be soon drastically reduced, the decision has been made recently to extend the Office of the High Representative’s mandate beyond 2007, due to “the situation in the region being still potentially unstable”, (as was explained by High Representative Christian Schwarz-Schilling recently). Whereas the interest of the international community for BiH is to take full responsibility for its own affairs, the lack of progress in constitutional reforms jeopardized the strengthening of state-level institutions; as a result the state keeps being held hostage by the entities, which promote their particularistic ethno-national projects, holding back the country from proceeding on its road to EU-membership. Although recent elections held in October 2006 shifted the balance of power away from ethnically defined parties to moderates, still political structures remain to be ethnically defined. Similarly, for many in Serbia keeping Kosovo takes priority over EU membership. If pro-European parties cannot seize the government, there is the danger that nationalist parties will move Serbia into isolation.
Liberal parties as being the most committed to the European vision and the most able to surpass ethnic dividing lines, should take on a more active role in shaping their countries’ future. In Serbia Cedomir Jovanovic’ Liberal Democrats have been the only ones daring to state openly that Serbia has lost Kosovo already. Reforms have been on the hold for several months and Serbian politics have been paralyzed by the Kosovo issue, therefore it seems to be essential to bring the Kosovo story to a definite end. In general it seems to be the case in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo alike that without solving the still pending statehood issues, essential economic and political progress cannot be expected, let alone EU integration.
Liberal parties have been the most outspoken promoters of liberal democratic values and EU integration, as such being natural allies of the European Union. They have been able to give up on nationalist myths and create non-ethnically defined political structures. Although in most countries they play a rather marginal goal, they still can build fruitful alliances with mainstream moderate parties that are open to the same principles. These parties together can present an alternative to the nationalist vision.
Regarding the unresolved statehood issues it is very important that liberals keep their uncompromising stance. In Bosnia-Herzegovina they can present a non-ethnic political option, which reinforces the state’s unity and thus pushes it into a European direction. In Serbia they should not stop facing the country with the loss of Kosovo, which needs to be digested sooner or latter. Furthermore, they can repeatedly call their states’ governments to account over the lack of cooperation with the Hague Tribunal, which directly blocks reaching an SAA.
Small steps towards the EU
At the same time, liberals should encourage their country’s enlargement process in a proactive manner. As the EU is currently institutionally unprepared for a future enlargement, liberals should not let pessimism and anti-European sentiments prevail in their societies but should push forward further short term initiatives. While enlargement cannot be hurried due to the internal processes within the EU, there are a number of steps that could be taken, which could bring about the intensification of social, economic and political ties between the EU and the Western Balkans and would make the countries better prepared for membership.
The following policy recommendations were put forward by Michael Emerson, head of the Center for Policy Studies (CEPS), a think-tank in Brussels. Michael Emerson, “An Interim Plan for South-East Europe”, CEPS Policy Brief, No. 85/November 2005.
1. Promote regional integration in South East Europe. Regional integration is a central theme of the EU’s policy framework for the Western Balkans and was set as a specific requirement under the stabilization and association agreements. The states have made some progress since 2001, having negotiated a number of bilateral free trade agreements among each other. Aspirations to transform this web of bilateral agreements into a single multilateral agreement have not succeeded so far, partially because the countries have maintained a number of product specific exceptions to the tariff and quota free trade. Therefore the next step could be removing all the remaining barriers and creating a unified customs zone. However, the whole Western Balkan region joining the Customs Union of the EU could be the following stage worth to be pursued, which is becoming even more urgent, as Romania and Bulgarian recently became EU members. Under the present circumstances, investors will prefer new member states and candidate states, thus the non candidate Western Balkan countries will very likely suffer a comparative disadvantage. At the same time joining the EU’s customs area would eliminate the rules of origin requirements for exports to the EU, which could create the conditions for accelerating investment from the EU to the Western Balkans and for encouraging intra-industry trade integration. Therefore, on the one hand, creating a customs union within the Western Balkans would mean that the region has met one of the EU’s requirements, would promote regional economic and social integration and regional cohesion and improve the region’s position while aspiring for joining the EU’s customs area. On the other hand, clearly the latter would bring about the most economic benefits, which would be the next step to be taken. It should be clarified for the pubic of the respective countries that regional integration is not a substitute to European Union membership but a necessary and beneficiary move towards the common objective of the states in the area.
2. Lobby for a change in visa policies in the region and in Brussels. Not only the Schengen visa makes traveling to the EU very difficult, but visa regimes within the region inhibit the free movement of people to a great extent, since as many countries as many fees and rules exist for obtaining a visa. All these barriers help to sustain inward looking societies with ethno-centric views and ethnic stereotypes about their neighbors and about the rest of Europe. Clearly, the low degree of interaction with the outside world helps nationalist parties to keep their positions and does not facilitate a liberal, democratic, pro-European state building model. While the hard Schengen frontier will remain in place for a while, liberals could lobby for the creation of a visa free zone including the Western Balkans and the new member states, thus among those that for the time being are outside the Schengen area. This policy could last until the states of South East Europe fulfill the requirements to gain a visa free status for the EU as a whole.
As for the democratic and liberal forces of the South East European countries and their neighbours, it is evident that the realisation of the common European Union perspective can be the only solution to overcome the historical backwardness of the whole region. In order to achieve this vision, pragmatic steps should be taken into consideration in order to create a new, co-operative political climate in the Balkans.