EU enlargement

Balking at the Balkans: Berlin skeptical of Brussels’ timetable

Aleksandar Vucic
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic wants EU membership definitely, maybe, sooner -- or later. Source: dpa

Brussels and Berlin are heading for yet another clash over the pace of European integration as the European Union prepares to set a timetable for the accession of some Balkan countries.

The European Commission under President Jean-Claude Juncker decided on a strategy paper Tuesday that would set a target of 2025 for Serbia and Montenegro to join the bloc. The two countries are the most advanced of six Balkan nations that the EU is lining up for membership. Albania and Macedonia have begun negotiations, while Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are not yet officially candidates. Accession for these four countries would be “medium-term.”

All six countries have a considerable challenge to meet EU standards for rule of law, taming of corruption and market-based competition, which makes the German government skeptical of setting a date. “There won’t be anything like a pre-set date for automatic accession,” said government spokesman Steffen Seibert.

The commission is wording its timetable carefully, but wants to have the symbolic incentive of a concrete date to push along negotiations. The 2025 target for Serbia and Montenegro is an “absolute best-case scenario,” an insider explained. “We’re not shortening the tunnel for these candidates,” sources said, “we’re only raising the dimmer on the light at the end of it.”

“For Austria, accession of Serbia and Montenegro by 2025 is doable and desirable.”

Konstantin Bekos, Austrian Chamber of Commerce

Berlin, on the other hand, doesn’t want this kind of deadline pressure on the talks. Like some other EU members, and the commission itself, Germany felt “enlargement fatigue” after adding 13 new member countries in the space of 10 years, concluding with the accession of Croatia in 2013. Mr. Juncker certainly seemed to share this feeling when he pledged three years ago that there would be no new members during his term of office, which ends next year.

Given the remaining candidates, that was a pretty safe bet and there was no way Mr. Juncker could have done otherwise even if he wanted to. So he is sticking to this pledge, but he does want to have a voice on further enlargement even if it is years after he leaves office.

The EU’s top executive will embark on a visit to the six Balkan countries later this month. Even if he can’t offer immediate accession, he might be able to dangle more financial aid in front of their leaders. With things at a stalemate in accession talks with Turkey, Mr. Juncker will have more funds from the EU’s “Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance” to offer the Balkan countries.

The facility is specifically designed to aid countries carrying out the reforms needed to measure up to EU standards. It is budgeted at €11.7 billion for the period 2014-2020, with more than a third earmarked for Turkey.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic made an official visit to Austria this past weekend, and Vienna, which once ruled over some of the Balkan territory as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is eager to get the biggest of them on board. “From the viewpoint of Austrian business, an accession of Serbia and Montenegro by 2025 is doable and desirable,” commented Konstantin Bekos at the Austrian Chamber of Commerce.

The countries spread across the mountains of southeastern Europe historically have been economically backwards. Their perennial fragmentation makes Balkanization the very opposite of the integration sought in Europe. Even Serbia has a GDP per capita of just €4,904, which makes neighboring Croatia look positively prosperous with €11,096, let alone the EU average of €29,148.

The relative poverty and the economic drag from rampant corruption, cronyism and encrusted bureaucracy prompt young people to leave the countries and hinder efforts at reform. Nonetheless, Serbia has been able to attract foreign investment and is on course to grow 3 percent this year and 3.5 percent next year. Mr. Vucic is pro-Europe and an avowed fan of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, even though he also assiduously cultivates Serbia’s ties to Russia.

At the same time, the Serbian president clearly has authoritarian tendencies. He was propaganda chief in the presidency of Slobodan Milosevic and played his role in covering up and minimizing the atrocities that led to Mr. Milosevic being indicted in an international tribunal for war crimes (though his trial ended without a verdict).

To a certain extent, even the EU candidates themselves might be wary of a quick accession. Endemic corruption in EU member states like Bulgaria and Romania, as well as authoritarian trends in Poland and Hungary show that membership in the bloc is not a cure-all. A further obstacle for Serbia is its refusal to recognize the independence of Kosovo, the ethnic Albanian province that broke away in 2008. The killing of Kosovo Serbian leader Oliver Ivanovic last month has heightened tensions there.

All this gives Berlin pause in setting a date for these countries to become EU members. But there is also a geopolitical dimension. As the EU sits back exhausted from its earlier enlargement, countries like Russia, China and Saudi Arabia have been moving into the vacuum to pursue their interests. Even Turkey, as it steps back from its own EU candidacy, has been extending its influence over a region it, too, ruled over as part of the Ottoman Empire. These considerations will no doubt embolden Mr. Juncker despite Germany’s reservations.

Till Hoppe is a correspondent in Handelsblatt’s Brussels bureau and Hans-Peter Siebenhaar is Handelsblatt’s correspondent in Vienna. Darrell Delamaide is a Handelsblatt Global editor in Washington, DC. To contact the authors: hoppe@handelsblatt.com, siebenhaar@handelsblatt.com, and d.delamaide@extern.handelsblatt.com.

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