Is EU enlargement in the Balkans a sabbatical strategy?

Is EU enlargement in the Balkans a sabbatical strategy? 

Tirana Times - 

By Albert Rakipi 

On Wednesday, the European Union announced that there are no immediate plans to invite new members into the Union. This decision, which, in fact did not come as a surprise, on the one hand may have not displeased so much certain countries of the Western Balkans, apart from Croatia perhaps. But, on the other hand, this decision may discourage efforts by the Balkan countries involved in the process of the political and economic reforms, weakening support for integration at the very delicate moment in which the process of the integration of the Balkans has reached. Due to the debates that have arisen related to the rejection of the EU Constitution by France and the Netherlands, and the arguments that accompanied this phenomenon such as “European fatigue,” “absorption capacities,” a false perception is gaining ground, that the freeze of further enlargement is linked, not so much with the preparation of the Balkan countries for membership, but with the very problems of the European Union and its functioning. In fact it is the opposite that is true. 

The perception of the miracle that emanates from Brussels is not new. In essence, according to this perception, European integration does not depend on the development and success of internal reforms, related to the political system, and economic development, but merely to a decision of Brussels. 

The moment at which the European Union has finally made it clear that there will be no new members admitted into the Union, is first of all linked with the lack of ability the Western Balkan countries have, including Turkey, to be members of the EU. The three countries that enjoy the status of candidates for membership, Croatia, Turkey, Macedonia, are still a long way, Brussels says, from meeting criteria related to the political system and economic development. Far less prepared are countries like Albania and Serbia. 

First of all the issues are political and have to do with the legitimacy of the regimes. Formally, all the Balkan countries are democratic regimes. But latest developments have proven that Macedonia is still a long way away from a mature and functioning democracy; Albania, in a few months time, will be facing the test-local government elections- which, again have to do with the political system. The rotation of power via free and fair elections, a challenge which not only Brussels considers as not having been obtained yet in Albania. The stagnation in Serbia is first of all political and the political elite proved, even through a referendum on the constitution that it is not ready to face up to a reality which everyone else now recognizes. 

Secondly, this is a problem of the Balkan economies, which are not only unprepared to compete on a market like that of the EU, but they are still not functioning. In this manner, the enthusiasm in Albania, following the signing of the SAA had begun to wear thin, particularly amongst the local manufacturing community. On 1 December, the interim agreement is expected to come into force which will have negative consequences for the national budget, as customs duties on European products are scaled down. But this is only one aspect of the negative effects although temporary. A number of manufacturing investments made in Albania are in a state of alarm because they feel endangered by the European products, the open doors policy towards which will kick in very soon, even if the impact is gradual. Many more arguments could be laid down here on the idea that the freeze of the EU Enlargement in the Western Balkans is the result of the unsettled regimes, of weak dysfunctional states and the very low level of economic development. This does not mean that a temporary freeze of enlargement is not also the consequence of the situation in which the EU finds itself. However, let’s suppose for a moment that the EU does not have the institutional problems, linked not only with the Constitution but also with the process of the deepening of integration. The first question should be: Are the Western Balkans countries ready for EU membership? The year 2006 was important for the EU and for the aspiring countries, too. The expected admittance of Bulgaria and Rumania is a new reality of the enlargement of the European project. We will just have to wait for further enlargement. Perhaps those will be very sabbatical years. But this does not mean that the EU will withdraw from commitments in the Balkans. For example, Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn’s demand that Kosova’s status be very clearly defined to permit it to sign agreements with the EU is not only important for Kosova’s future. It also speaks clearly of the EU resolve to remain committed in the Balkans as a global player and to help prepare those countries for future membership.