Balkan peace must be a prerequisite to #EU accession

| February 26, 2018



The European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker has finally drawn a line in the sand for the West Balkans: the prospect of EU membership is still on the table for the beleaguered states, but not before they resolve their ongoing border disputes. His comments come amid an unremitting dispute between Croatia and Slovenia that had not been resolved before Croatia’s accession to the bloc. They also put new pressure on the Albania-Serbia and Montenegro-Kosovo dyads to resolve their differences if they have any hope of joining the EU in the near future. This extra hurdle comes on top of the countless EU accession chapters that have yet to be opened.


With five separate international borders, Croatia has been said to be suffering from “middle child syndrome” – believing those above and below the coastal state to be getting a bigger share of the pie. Joining the EU in 2013, Croatia initially accepted an arbitration ruling in The Hague regarding a shared sea and land border with neighbouring Slovenia, an EU member since 2004. In the ensuing years, however, Croatia has come to call the northern Adriatic legal proceedings into question by declaring them compromised and, therefore, null and void. The result has been the reigniting of a 26-year dispute involving some 12 square kilometres of maritime territory in Piran Bay, and a 670 kilometre stretch of land along the border delineating the southern front of Europe’s Schengen area. Slovenia, and the rest of the EU, are less than impressed.


The conflict only adds to an additional border dispute that Croatia has with Serbia. The ongoing disagreement reflects the omnipresence of open wounds and residual issues left over from the brutal wars that plagued the Western Balkans in the 1990s. Decades after the end of the war with Belgrade, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković stoked the flames earlier this month by asserting that countless grievances have not been adequately addressed since the war’s end. While memories are clearly still squarely focused on feelings of loss, the presidents of both Croatia and Serbia have at last taken steps to conciliate. Vowing to seek international arbitration regarding their frontier along the Danube River if no solutions has been worked out among them by 2020, they sent a signal of goodwill to each other, as well as Brussels.


Croatia is hardly the only state negotiating its boundaries in the notoriously fragile Western Balkans. Next to Serbia, Montenegro is the most advanced EU membership candidate, but a border agreement with the only partially recognised Kosovo has been blocked by the opposition in both countries. Kosovar President Hashim Thaci and Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic last week announced a plan to create a working group charged with correcting “mistakes” in the now-blocked 2015 demarcation accord. Ratification of the deal is one of the remaining barriers to Montenegro gaining visa-free access to the bloc.


Montenegro’s main pro-Serbian opposition group, the Democratic Front, has accused the government of treason over the matter. The opposition’s move comes at a rather inopportune time for Podgorica, as this internal strife is only exacerbating the national unruliness that saw its genesis under former president Milo Djukanovic. Over two decades of rule, Djukanovic’s government served to benefit a group of party loyalists, while closing off the political space to the opposition. Politicians and journalists alike have been persecuted and imprisoned, and one journalist, Duško Jovanović, was even killed in a drive-by shooting after being threatened by the head of the country’s state security.


During the 2000s, Djukanovic headed a selloff of the country’s state-owned industry and other enterprises, with some 80% of all privatised firms going bankrupt by 2014. Thus plunged into economic woes, corruption and gang violence have been rampant in Montenegro ever since. With presidential elections coming up this year, Djukanovic is preparing to run again, much to the displeasure of many Western partners.


As Montenegro is struggling to claw itself into a position of EU-worthy stability, Kosovo and Serbia are also showing only little progress in resolving issues of their own. Their border squabbling is the most dangerously explosive in the region. Serbia’s government has so far refused to give an official response to a demand by Germany that it recognise Kosovo’s independence before accession to the EU, a whole decade after the former province first declared its separation. Despite recognition by 115 other countries, including 23 of 28 EU states, Kosovo has received zero rope from its neighbour in the north. Despite the fact regional peace hangs in the balance, Serbia has yet to make any conciliatory move.


The volatility of the situation was on full display last year when a Serbian train decorated with nationalistic anti-Kosovo slogans ignited new fears that the dispute could escalate into full-blown conflict. The fact that some 120,000 Serbs continue to reside in Kosovo and consider Belgrade their capital city could also act as a catalyst for instability. With the group receiving financial support from Serbia, their insistence on reunification will likely only add to the pressure.


In light of persistent tensions in the region, Juncker is right to pour some cold water on the EU’s expansionary visions. Until border disputes and regional tensions are completely resolved, EU accession by any more Balkan states would be a poisoned chalice for Brussels. Failing to exercise caution in this instance would without a doubt import the conflicts to the rest of the bloc.

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Category: A Frontpage, Western Balkans