The Endless Marathon: Brussels Assesses Progress in the Balkans

The Berlaymont is a European governmental building in Brussels, Belgium. It houses the European Commission headquarters. (Photo: Ellen Rooney / Getty Images)

The European Commission (EC) annual reports on would-be members brought a mixture of hope and bitterness in the Balkans, after being published early last month. Brussels regularly assesses the progress of aspirant countries in meeting the conditions for membership and hands out the carrot or the stick accordingly. Countries are commended for progress and promoted in the process, or criticized for lack of reforms and passed for rewards.

Croatia had much to be content with this year. It got a clear sign it can complete the negotiations for membership by the end of 2009, which theoretically can make it an EU member by 2011. There was a last minute chill with the high profile assassination of a journalist, Ivo Pukanic, founder of weekly Nacional, in the capital Zagreb just days before the reports were published, but the damage was controlled after all.

Serbia was waved a big carrot, but it can only taste it next year if continues to behave. In the words of Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, Belgrade could get the status of a candidate country by end 2009, in a “best case scenario. This year Serbia did very good. It arrested a war criminal-turned – spiritual healer, Radovan Karadzic; voted democrats as opposed to hard -core radicals, and essentially behaved when Kosovo declared independence.

It is Macedonia – EU candidate country since 2005 - who got a serious rebuke by the Commission. Brussels told her bluntly – and it rarely uses direct language - that it does not meet the political criteria for membership. Thus the country did not get the date for start of membership negotiations it hoped for. Skopje made a lot of progress in the economy lately, but failed miserably in the early elections in July. They were sham, marred by violence and irregularities. It may well be just the action of a few political scoundrels and not reflect the overall political culture (does it not really?), but political leaders should get it in their heads that this is just not acceptable.

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Bosnia started the year well and made a step closer to the EU by signing a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Brussels, but the car went downhill since. Rising nationalism has again been threatening to disrupt its fragile fabric. Senior statesmen have warned recently that Bosnia is at risk. The West needs to watch over. Speeding up its accession process could help, but that also needs firm political will in Brussels, not just reforms and progress on the part of the candidate. Such will is not visible at present.

Albania and newly founded Montenegro - declared independence in 2006- received moderate commendation for their efforts. Brussels said the implementation of their SAA’s went smoothly. The next step for them would be to obtain candidate status, but that carrot is not yet at reach.

Finally there is Kosovo, which is quite new to the race. It is too early to tell. Pristina only declared (a highly contested) independence earlier this year. It will take her some time.

It is often said every country runs the race alone. Alas, that’s way too simple. There is a dispute of how many runners there actually are in the case of Serbia and Kosovo, and the referee, who watches the finish line, is also not sure. They are bound to trip over.

Commissioner Rehn said recently that 2009 could be an important year for the Balkans, provided optimistic predictions come true. It would be about time. Croatia aside, all the others are in a race with a finish line nowhere in sight.