EU enlargement / Western Balkans>

Last update: 01 10 2009

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European future of the Western Balkans

Safe and prosperous Western Balkans is one of the principal preoccupations of foreign policy of the countries of Visegrad region. What is more, the cultural and geographical proximity and experience with successful transformation predetermine Visegrad countries to play a pivotal role in advocating the European future for the countries of the region.

Background

The EU's fundamental objective for the Western Balkans region (South East Europe) is to create a situation where military conflict is unthinkable – expanding to the region the area of peace, stability, prosperity and freedom established over the last 50 years by gradual European integration. Generally, majority of the “new” member states are fond of southeastern enlargement. Part of the logic says it is inappropriate for Member States that have just entered the EU to deny accession to other states.

Western Balkan countries are the first in the waiting room (as long as Island is not concerned) for EU membership, before controversial Turkey and countries covered by European partnership (see next Factsheet).

The Lisbon European Council of March 2000 stated that Stabilization and Association Agreements (SAAs) with Western Balkan countries, which involve the establishment of Free Trade Areas "should be preceded by asymmetrical trade liberalization”. As part of the Stabilization and Association process the Council decided to improve the existing autonomous trade preferences, and provide autonomous trade liberalization for 95% of all the affected countries' exports to the EU.

The EU, also in its capacity as the main assistance donor in the region, recognizes progress by entering into formal contractual relationships with the qualifying states, which all have signed Stabilisation and Association Agreements (SAAs) with the EU. The SAA is considered a key step on the road to full membership. 

For Visegrad countries, clearly Western Balkan is a topic of shared interest, although there are variations in the intensity.

CZECH REPUBLIC

From the historical point of view the Czech Republic and the region of Western Balkans are closely tied together. The Czech Republic has always supported the adhesion of Western Balkans countries to the Euro-Atlantic structures. Not long after the 2004 enlargement the Czech Republic started to contribute to the financial aid which flows from the EU to this region. Since 2006 Czech Republic is a regular contributor to the Western Balkans Fund within the framework of the European Bank for the Reconstruction and Development. Till 2008 the amount of the Czech contribution counted 2 million euro. All Visegrad group members are involved in this fund. Concerning the Lisbon Treaty, Czech Republic agues that delay in the ratification should not influence the enlargement of the Union.

The government considered Czech EU Presidency an excellent opportunity to enhance the relations between the EU and countries in this region. The Czech Republic strived to speed up the process of the European integration in the framework of the Stabilization and association process (SAA).

Croatia is likely to be the first from the group of Western Balkan states to join the EU. But during the presidency it became clear, that the conclusion of the accession negotiations will not be closed during the first half of 2009 - mainly due to the cross-border dispute between Slovenia and Croatia. Czech Republic supports the solution through arbitrary procedure.

Although being a candidate country FYROM has not been able to start accession negotiations. During the Czech presidency Montenegro and Albania have forwarded their application to the EU. Czech Republic also planned push through the visa liberalization process for 4 states in this region. It was not directly during the Czech presidency but few weeks after its conclusion that the European Commission proposed to enlarge the visa-free regime on FYROM, Serbia and Montenegro from 1st January 2010. Only citizens from Croatia can now travel around Europe freely. In Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina problems with organized crime still persist and there are also not enough places to distribute new passports.

During the Czech Presidency the EULEX mision in Kosovo started to be fully operational. Czech Republic is one of the member states who has officially recognized the existence of the Kosovar state and which fully supports the Kosovo’s EU membership.

HUNGARY

When EU enlargement policy is tabled in Hungary, it is very often related to the question of ethnic Hungarians living behind the border. The conservative government between 1998 and 2002 tried several measures to enable the boarder crossing and naturalization of the Hungarian minority. Some of these work until today, for example the so called “Hungarian-pass” which is given on the basis of voluntary request to ethnic Hungarians in Croatia, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and in Ukraine, but others, like the Government Office of Hungarian Minorities Abroad proved to be non-functional.

EU enlargement is also viewed as a tool of minority policy in Hungary. However, the ever deepening row between Slovakia and Hungary seems to confute this elemental thesis of the Hungarian foreign policy. This was stressed by Péter Balázs, foreign minister of Hungary in July, in his speech at the annual heads of missions conference: “We hoped, that with the realization of the first two external relations priorities, gaining membership in the EU and NATO, will automatically solve or help to solve the third priority, better neighborhood relations and the situation of ethnic Hungarians over the border. We know that it did not happen like this.”

Still, the direction of enlargement overlaps Hungarian national interests. As border country of the European Union, and at the border of the Western Balkans, Hungary has a strategic interest of the successful democratization, stabilization of these countries and the strengthening of market economy in the region. Besides security policy reasons, Hungary also has strong economic interest in these countries. Hungary is one of the biggest investor in Macedonia, in Croatia, in Serbia, but the economic relations are also institutionalized with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro.

Thereupon, as the prime minister Gordon Bajnai confirmed at the heads of missions conference, Hungary “actively” supports the accession of Croatia and also “actively” supports Serbia’s and Albania’s Euro-atlantic and European integration.

Regarding Macedonia, Prime Minister Bajnai did not speak about the country’s accession progress, however, he stressed, that “it is our elemental interest to help resolve those bilateral conflicts that have drawn up in the relations of Macedonia and Greece, and between Croatia and Slovenia”.

As is the prime minister’s and the foreign minister’s speech, in Hungary’s External Relations Strategy the Western Balkan region, Hungarian neighborhood policy and national identity questions also converge in one, very strongly neighborhood-related external policy approach.

POLAND

Although being an all directions enlargement friendly country, Western Balkans is not a top priority in Polish foreign policy. For Warsaw it is clearly a secondary issue, at least compared to the stabilization of its direct Eastern neighborhood – Belarus and Ukraine. In Western Balkan no vital interest of Poland are at stake and the country has limited social and economic ties with the region compared to other Visegrad countries.

Polish involvement and interest in Western Balkans stem more from the membership in European Union and other regional initiatives, Visegrad group being the most important. Despite of this, Polish support of membership of the countries of the Western Balkans in the EU, provided they fulfill all criteria, is sound and pragmatic, seen also as a “moral obligation”. Accession of Western Balkan to the EU is regarded to be a continuation of the process of bridging of Cold War divisions.

Poland is not acting in the role of a major advocate of any of the states of the region (in contrast to Ukraine), most of the time it agrees with the European Commission’s assessments of the development on the region. Warsaw also favors the visa liberalization process and it a provider of development aid to the region.

Poland supported the independence of Kosovo. In the past, it maintained military presence in operations in Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as in FYROM. Poland slightly sides with Macedonia in the name dispute with Greece, but not at the expense of EU unity.

The ultimate objective for Polish diplomacy is extending the EU eastwards to include Belarus and Ukraine, however, the accession of southeast European states is not seen as a detour or alternative to reaching that goal, analysts argue.

SLOVAKIA

From the territorial point of view, Western Balkans is at the top of the foreign policy priorities of the Slovak republic. In this line, Slovakia is a vocal supporter of the European perspective of the countries in the region – especially for Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro (there is Slovak minority living in Serbia and Croatia). What is more, Slovak diplomacy has significant renomé in the region – Miroslav Lajčák and František Lipka oversaw the Montenegrin referendum on independence from Serbia, Lajčák was the High Representative/EU Special Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Eduard Kukan was the Special envoy of UN Secretary General to Western Balkans). Slovak NGOs played a pivotal role in mobilization of Serbian society in the presidential elections that saw the fall of Slobodan Milosević. Having been able to overcome the suspension of the accession process for failing to meet the political criteria in the 1990s, Slovakia’s experience is highly appreciated in the Balkans.

However as some analyst suggests, Slovakia has stick to its self-satisfaction with the past successes and lacks more visionary approach to the future regarding the region.

The public support for the accession of Croatia in the European Union is among the highest in the EU. Croatia for its part showed willingness to use the Slovak experience form the accession process. Also bilateral relations are very friendly. On the occasion of the visit of Croatian president Stipe Mesič to Bratislava Slovakian president Ivan Gasparovič said that it is unfair that Croatia is not yet a member of the EU, although it is better prepared that the last two members that joined the EU (Bulgaria and Rumania). Apart form the support in the accession process Slovakia is interested in deepening the cooperation in the field of the diversification of the energy recourses with the help of the Croatian energy infrastructure (integration of the Družba – Adria pipelines).

Besides Croatian, Serbia and Montenegro also enjoy the same vocal support in the accession process, Serbia being highlighted as a key player for the whole region. Serbia is the biggest recipient of the Slovak official development aid. The special relationship with Belgrade has manifested itself in the fact, that Slovakia is the only Visegrad country which has not recognized unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo. It also strictly rejects to condition the accession process of Serbia with the recognition of Kosovo. (Nevertheless Slovakia agreed to the compromise regarding granting of scholarships to students from Kosovo from IVF and for “humanitarian reason it started to accept Kosovo passports, which was not the case before.). With the time, its position on Kosovo shifted form wait and see approach towards the firm statement that independent Kosovo is violation of the territorial integrity of Serbia.

Prioritizing Western Balkans has its imprint in the presence of Slovak army in the international crisis management missions. Slovakia upholds its military presence in Kosovo (KFOR) and in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Althea).