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Posted on Sustainabilitank.info on March 4th, 2008
by Pincas Jawetz (pj@sustainabilitank.info)

EU woos western Balkans with initiatives for citizens.

03.03.2008 – 17:20 CET | By Honor Mahony for Euobserver from Brusells, March 3, 2008.

The European Commission is on Wednesday expected to publish a series of proposals aimed at binding citizens of the western Balkan states to the EU, as the bloc’s politicians are increasingly concerned about the threat to stability in the region.

The draft paper, seen by EUobserver, outlines a number of initiatives that would have the ultimate effect of keeping the EU relevant for the citizens of Albania, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia even as progress towards actual membership of the bloc remains slow, and in some countries endangered by the recent unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo.

The document says it wants to make the “prospect of membership visible and concrete for the citizens of the countries of the western Balkans.”

While stressing that EU membership progress continues to mean meeting certain criteria – for Serbia and Bosnia this includes cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) – the paper points to the importance of “people-to-people” contact.

The European Commission is promising to maintain the political will for achieving visa liberalisation in all of the countries. Only Croatians are currently not obliged to obtain a visa to travel to the EU.

It is also proposing to offer more scholarships to students of the region and aiming to double its current annual contribution of €10 million by 2009/10, enabling “several hundred additional students to receive a scholarship.”

The draft paper also says that Brussels will later this year suggest that potential EU membership candidates will take part in EU programmes on research, culture and competition on the same footing as those already on the EU membership list (Croatia and Macedonia).

Additionally, cooperation in the fight against terrorism and trafficking “will be stepped up”, says the paper, which also says that by early 2009, “a fully fledged regional school of public administration” should be established. Corruption is highlighted in the document as a problem affecting the whole region.

The commission is also highlighting the importance of economic reform, drawing attention to the importance of EU funding for small- and medium-sized businesses as well as security of energy supply, and is proposing closer co-operation on developing infrastructure in the region, as well as more cooperation in fighting natural disasters.

The paper notes that the western Balkans “will receive around €4 billion (…) for the period 2007-2011.” This amounts to €30 per capita per year – “by far the highest amount provided by the EC to any region in the world.”

The commission’s publication comes as the EU is increasingly worried about the prospect of instability in the Balkans, triggered by Kosovo’s move to independence from Serbia last month.

Pristina’s declaration has already caused EU dialogue with Serbia to all but dry up, has prompted secessionist talk in Bosnia and has seen a European civilian mission deployed to Kosovo, with fears that the small new state will in effect become a protectorate of the bloc.

Meanwhile, the EU has over the past few months been trying to tread a fine line between giving the Balkan states enough political cherries to keep them and their publics interested in the European Union while at the same time using the leverage of eventual membership to press for internal reforms and encourage stability and good neighbourly relations.

Also:     Macedonia to be set tasks to ensure opening EU negotiations.

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is later this week to be told by the European Commission to undertake a series of tasks in order to guarantee that it can open membership negotiations with the EU later this year.

In a draft paper on the western Balkans, due to be published by the commission on Wednesday (5 March), Macedonia is to be told that the “pace of reforms has, on the whole, been slow during the past two years, [but] there have recently been signs of reforms gaining momentum.”

The Brussels paper, which may yet be altered, calls on the small Balkan country, an EU membership candidate since December 2005, to carry out further reforms and points to a list of priorities adopted by EU member states last month.

“These cover the commitments undertaken under the SAA [the stabilisation and association agreement], dialogue between political parties, implementation of the law on police and anti-corruption legislation, reform of the judiciary and public administration, as well as measures in employment policy and for enhancing the business environment.”

The paper says that when these priorities are met, Macedonia will have demonstrated “its readiness to undertake accession negotiations” – something Brussels believes can happen in 2008 with “sufficient political will and cross-party cooperation.”

In its annual progress Western Balkans report late last year, the commission did not give the green light for starting accession talks as Macedonia had hoped, citing political shortcomings for the delay.

Meanwhile, of all the countries in the region lining up to join – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and recently Kosovo – Croatia is the most advanced in terms of developments.

The commission says that in order for 2008 to be a “decisive year” for the country, which is hoping to join the EU by 2011, it needs to make further progress with judicial reforms, fighting corruption, minority rights, return of refugees and the restructuring of heavy industries.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has already initialled an SAA agreement, which is seen as the first step to EU membership. The country is encouraged in the paper to adopt state-level legislation on police, with Brussels saying that the key agreement may be signed “in the next few months”, provided there is enough political will.

Both Albania and Montenegro are told to strengthen the rule of law, especially in the fight against corruption and organised crime, and to properly implement the SAA.

Serbia, whose relations with the EU have cooled in the run-up to and since the declaration of Kosovo’s independence last month, is told that it has “a crucial role to play in ensuring stability, good neighbourly relations and regional cooperation in the western Balkans.”

The Netherlands recently blocked Serbia’s attempt to sign the SAA agreement with the EU saying it must cooperate fully with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

But an interim political deal was subsequently blocked by Belgrade’s nationalist prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, earlier this month. He argued it was being offered by Brussels as a trade-off for the independence of former Serb province Kosovo.

As regards Kosovo itself, where the EU has recently deployed a civilian mission, the paper says it has a “clear and concrete EU perspective.”

It warns the fledgling state that major challenges include fighting organised crime and corruption, supporting economic development, improving conditions for the return of refugees and enhancing dialogue and reconciliation between communities.

The EU is expected to spend over €1 billion between 2007 and 2010 supporting Kosovo’s political and economic development.

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