Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Written evidence submitted by Dr Othon Anastasakis, St Antony's College, University of Oxford


Current situation, both optimistic and pessimistic

  Since the fall of Milosevic the situation in the Western Balkans has been improving steadily and gradually. There are regular elections at various levels (national, regional, municipal) which take place everywhere in the area; there is a certain economic recovery and increasing interest in direct foreign investment; and there is a process of convergence with the European Union.

  Despite the advances there are important deficits which obstruct the normalisation of the political and economic life and jeopardise the security of the area. Issues like organised crime, non-cooperation with ICTY or ethnic extremism are still prevalent. On balance, there are both positive as well as negative developments which justify both optimism and pessimism.

The EU as the only game in town

  The region is struggling between the forces of European-oriented reform and the forces of inward nationalism. International actors agree that there is a need for the consolidation and sustainability of the reform process and support for the modernising and Europeanising forces. The role of the European Union in this is crucial.

  The EU acts as the normative, political and economic power in the region. With the gradual withdrawal of the US and its attention focused on other areas, the European Union has adopted the major responsibility in the development and integration of the region in Europe; it is also the single largest donor in the region.

  The European Union has a multiple agenda in the Western Balkan region and a wide-ranging presence. It deals:

    (a)  with hard and soft security issues through military and police missions and the fight against organised crime;

    (b)  reconstruction/cooperation/reconciliation and the restoration of normalcy among neighbouring states and communities;

    (c)  post-communist transition/European integration/adoption of the acquis.

  The first two points make the EU task more difficult and in many ways different from the previous Central and East European enlargement experience.

  From the EU side, there is an enlargement fatigue and the struggle to absorb the big shock from the recent big-bang enlargement; there is still commitment towards Bulgaria and Romania for 2007; and there is a growing debate on the start of accession talks with Turkey; there is also some disillusionment with the slow progress in the Western Balkan area. Despite this discouraging context, the EU has to keep up with its commitment for the Western Balkans and convince regional players about it.

Some limited improvements in the EU policies

  The Thessaloniki summit in 2003 increased the EU commitment through the establishment of European Partnerships, the enhancement of SAP with elements from the enlargement process and a more explicit roadmap towards potential accession. It offered a number of pre-accession policies and increased slightly its CARDS budget. Overall there have been some adjustments in the right direction but not radical innovations.

  The European Partnership (modelled on the Accession Partnerships) offers the perspective of membership but not a pre-accession status. It introduces new instruments based on the experience of previous enlargement like economic policy dialogue, twinning process, monitoring through annual country reports and tailor-made benchmarks and incentives. Pre-accession aid remains limited and no cohesion or structural funds are yet committed for the Western Balkan countries (with the exception of Croatia). Although "partnership" in name, the partners are not working on a commonly agreed agenda but rather on the directives dictated by the EU.

Differentiation in the region; single framework but own merits approach

  Although the EU tries to keep a common and uniform framework for all the Western Balkan countries, it recognizes that each country is to be judged on its own merits and performance. As a result the Stabilisation and Association Agreements (SAAs) are negotiated with each country separately and the speed of EU integration depends on whether each country is able to implement its own SAA.

  The Western Balkan region is a striking example of diversity among states and each country is in a different stage of bilateral relations with the European Union. (FYR Macedonia has a SAA in force; Croatia also has one, albeit not yet ratified by all EU members and a positive avis for the start of accession talks; Albania is negotiating a SAA; Bosnia and Herzegovina has adopted a feasibility study for a SAA with 16 points to implement; Serbia & Montenegro is discussing a feasibility study on the basis of a recently adopted twin track approach; Kosovo is on a Stabilisation and Association Tracking Mechanism but which does not include a SAA since Kosovo is not a sovereign entity).

  Within this state of affairs it is rather difficult to see how the European Union will be able to combine its bilateral relations with a regional policy. Having said that, it is acknowledged that a regional policy is needed in order to tackle regional issues and is based on the conviction that what happens in one country also affects its neighbor.

  Lately, a positive process is generated by the Croatian and the Macedonian SAAs, the positive avis towards Croatian accession talks, the transferral of responsibilities to DG enlargement with the advent of the new European Commission.

  But overall the Western Balkans is not a success story for the EU in the way Bulgaria, Romania or Turkey can claim it to be. The EU needs to find ways to address the impasse in Serbia and Montenegro, the low standards of governance in Kosovo, the slow progress in Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Need for more incentives to get the ball rolling

  There should be more evident incentives to pursue the preparation for candidacy and accession. Simply addressing the priorities in the European Partnerships for the short and medium term, will not as a catalyst for reform.

  The EU should reconsider its conditionality mix with more carrots than sticks and attach the conditions with short and medium term incentives.

  There is need for focused aid which should be adequately addressed in the financial provisions for the Western Balkan countries in the 2007-2013 Financial Perspectives.

  There is a need to improve the business climate with clear timetables and benchmarks which will give clear signals and engage more FDI.

Understanding the underlying causes of regional problems and addressing the real concerns

  The EU has identified the lack of political will as an important deficit in the process towards europeanisation but fails to generate political will through its actions in the region and to produce enough political will of its own. Moreover, its philosophy and policy towards the Western Balkans is still informed by the legacy of the Former Yugoslav conflict and its security questions.

  Surveys show that socio-economic problems constitute key concerns of the populations in the region, often more important than pure ethnic issues; these are poorly addressed by local actors as well as the international community. Economic underdevelopment, unemployment and macro-economic instability are cited as the main causes of civil unrest and political apathy towards the political elites. The EU should confront such questions which are closely connected with the stability of the political process and the security of the wider region. While policy makers acknowledge the issue, it is not always clear whether they always regard this as a top priority. Their priority instead goes to institution building, trade liberalisation and regional cooperation.

  The need to increase local ownership has been frequently mentioned but the reality is that the international community does not trust local players and ends up acting in a denigrating way. The protectorate mentality is highly prevalent in that part of Europe. More consultation is needed and sensitivities to local views should be accounted for. The European Union has to improve its ambiguous image in the Western Balkans, through a more effective public relations exercise and a less patronizing attitude. There is serious skepticism in Serbia-Montenegro, unfavourable feelings in Kosovo and ambivalent attitudes in Bosnia-Herzegovina which generate the lack of consensus needed for the reform process.

  In sum, the EU can have great leverage in the region because there is simply no other international option that can act as an anchor to the process of change. EU membership remains a long-term project but should not just be an end in itself. It is what the EU does with the process that matters. In this unusual and quite difficult regional situation, the EU has to strike the right balance between sticks and carrots, conditions and rewards, maintain a genuine commitment and involvement, and respond to local demands.

Dr Othon Anastasakis


South East European Studies Programme (SEESP)

European Studies Centre, St Antony's College, University of Oxford

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Prepared 23 February 2005