One little-noticed side effect of the Greek debt crisis is that it is playing into the hands of those who oppose faster progress on enlarging the European Union.  Western Balkan countries such as Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are queuing up at the EU’s door, but only Croatia has any chance of membership in the next three years.

Among the reasons is that Greece, the first Balkan state to enter the EU (in 1981), has been exposed as a country that not only ran ruinous and reckless fiscal policies for many years, but deceived its partners with false data in order to join the eurozone at the start of this decade.  Rightly or wrongly, some policymakers in EU national capitals argue that this unhappy experience demonstrates that, when it comes to public probity, Balkan states are just not to be trusted. Read more

Setting up the European Union’s new diplomatic service was never going to be easy.  Turf wars between the EU’s 27 member-states and the European Commission were inevitable, and the ever meddlesome European Parliament was certainly not going to pass up an opportunity to stick its oar in.  But if the EU doesn’t get this right, the world’s other big powers will never be convinced that the Europeans are serious about operating a coherent common foreign policy. Read more

There are some who say the forced withdrawal of Rumiana Jeleva as Bulgaria’s candidate for the European Commission on Tuesday was a blow to Commission president José Manuel Barroso.  After all, didn’t Barroso make public a letter in support of Jeleva as late as last Friday, only two working days before she crashed in flames?

I disagree.  The truth is, Barroso found himself in a very delicate situation and needed to extract himself from it without humiliating Jeleva, annoying the Bulgarian government and giving more excuses for the European Parliament to delay confirming his new Commission in office.  By and large, Barroso has achieved these three objectives.  He has handled the whole thing rather well. Read more

Say what you will about Rumiana Jeleva, Bulgaria’s nominee for the new European Commission, but she is one hell of a dancer.  A Youtube clip shows her doing the rumba in what appears to be Bulgaria’s equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing – and there’s no question, it would be a severe injustice if she didn’t get 10 out of 10.

It would be less of an injustice, however, if the European Parliament refused to support her appointment as the EU commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis response.  This is partly because, in her parliamentary hearing on Tuesday, she did not convincingly answer some of the many questions that MEPs asked her about her financial affairs.  She denied allegations of impropriety, but she seemed remarkably hazy about the details of her involvement with a consultancy that specialised in privatisation matters. Read more

Tuesday’s murder of Bobi Tsankov, a young Bulgarian journalist who wrote about his country’s over-mighty gangsters, took place in broad daylight in a crowded street in the centre of Sofia.  As a statement about the power of organised crime in Bulgaria, it could hardly have been more explicit.

Moreover, it could hardly have come at a worse time for Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s government.  Borissov came to power in July facing the arduous task of regaining the trust of Bulgaria’s European Union partners.  Some of them bitterly regretted their decision to let Bulgaria join the EU in 2007 before it had properly confronted the scourge of organised crime.  A 2008 European Commission report on Bulgaria’s progress in tackling corruption and organised crime was, in my view, the most negative ever produced about a EU member-state. Read more

What does 2010 hold in store for the European Union?  With people in Brussels only just drifting back to work after a couple of weeks of snow, sub-zero temperatures and seasonally adjusted flu, it seems too brutal to plunge straight into topics such as the “2020 Strategy“, the “Reflection Group“ and other elusively named EU initiatives of which we are certain to hear more as the year moves on.

What one can say is that the EU ended 2009 feeling rather more pleased with itself than perhaps it had expected 12 months previously.  Despite suffering the most severe economic contraction in its history, the EU avoided a meltdown of its financial sector, stuck fairly well to its rules on fair competition and free trade, and even witnessed a return to growth in certain countries. Read more

Enlargement of the European Union is, almost imperceptibly, moving forward once more.  EU foreign ministers are expected next week to forward Albania’s membership application to the European Commission for an opinion.  This is a necessary technical step on the path to entry – small, but important.

The Commission is already preparing opinions on the applications of Iceland and Montenegro.  The opinions will take quite some time to deliver – longer for Albania and Montenegro than for Iceland – but the machinery is now in motion. Read more

Slovenia’s announcement last Friday that it is ready to lift its veto on Croatia’s European Union entry talks gave a welcome boost to the EU enlargement process.  Other than Iceland’s decision in July to apply for membership, enlargement has been running into one brick wall after another in the past couple of years.

This is partly because of petty arguments such as the Slovenian-Croatian maritime border dispute (still unresolved, in spite of last Friday’s breakthrough) which held up Croatia’s talks.  But it is also because of a certain fatigue and disillusion in many of the EU’s 27 member-states, especially in western Europe, about admitting new entrants. Read more

So exciting are European Union summits that they sometimes distract attention from developments that, though perhaps less eye-catching, tell you a lot more about what’s going on in the EU.  For example, the latest two-day summit is concentrating on financial regulation, guarantees for Ireland’s sovereignty so that it can hold another referendum on the EU’s Lisbon treaty, and the nomination of José Manuel Barroso for a second term as European Commission president.

But a more interesting story was the breakdown on Thursday of EU-mediated talks between Slovenia and Croatia over their bilateral maritime border dispute.  This makes it virtually certain that Croatia will not complete its EU accession negotiations by the end of this year – the goal that Barroso and Croatia’s government had originally set themselves. Read more

Opinion polls show that the general European public has got only the vaguest idea of what the European Parliament does. So here is a personal six-point guide:

1. The parliament has equal power with the Council of Ministers (national governments) in deciding most European Union-wide laws. This will increase to cover virtually all EU legislation if the Lisbon treaty comes into force next January. Read more

When Olli Rehn, the European Union’s enlargement commissioner, underwent his confirmation hearings in 2004, he was asked what goals he hoped to achieve by the end of his five-year spell in office. He named six: a) a EU of 27 member-states, b) Croatia’s entry negotiations in their final stage, c) other western Balkan states put on a EU path through association agreements, d) Turkey firmly on the European track, e) Kosovo’s status settled, and f) Cyprus reunified.

Speaking last Friday at a conference in Prague to mark the fifth anniversary of the EU’s “big bang” expansion from 15 to 25 (and later 27) members, Rehn claimed that he had met five of his six targets. Only Cyprus’s reunification was missing. But even on Cyprus it wasn’t all doom and gloom – talks on a comprehensive settlement had been going on since last September. Read more

The European Union is truly a weird and wonderful thing. Take the question of enlargement into the western Balkans (an area once known as Yugoslavia and Albania).

As is well-known, France, Germany and other western European countries have been reluctant to move the enlargement process forward as long as the EU’s Lisbon reform treaty remains blocked. Among their concerns is the fear that their electorates will not take kindly to the prospect of yet more eastern Europeans piling into the EU at a time of extraordinary economic crisis. Read more

Once upon a time a certain corner of Europe was known as Yugoslavia. Then it became former Yugoslavia or, for pointy-heads, the Yugoslav successor states. Now, with Slovenia in the European Union, Brussels has packaged what’s left of the old Yugoslavia with Albania and relabelled it “the western Balkans” – but the problems remain as intractably Yugoslav as ever.

Take Bosnia-Herzegovina, where EU foreign ministers today named Valentin Inzko, a high-ranking Austrian diplomat, as the bloc’s new Special Representative. Inzko will wear two hats – he was named the world’s High Representative for Bosnia last week. But it will be something of a miracle if he makes any progress towards bringing the Bosnian state off the international life support machine on which it has depended since the end of the 1992-95 civil war. Read more

In his recent inaugural address in Washington, President Barack Obama said “the time has come to set aside childish things”. Evidently the leaders of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia weren’t listening.

They have just done an unbelievably childish thing and named their section of a major north-south trans-European highway – known in Eurospeak as “Corridor 10″ – after Alexander the Great. In 2007, they renamed Skopje airport after him. Read more

Turkey should almost be pleased. On Friday the European Union agreed to open two new “chapters”, or policy areas, in Turkey’s EU accession negotiations – on the free movement of capital and on information society and the media. The Czech Republic, which takes over the EU’s rotating presidency from France on January 1, hopes to open two more chapters during its six-month spell in charge.

So out of the 35 chapters that need to be completed before a country can join the EU, Turkey now has 10 open and could have 12 open by June 30. Whoopee! At this rate, all 35 will be open by some time in 2015. Except, of course, that certain western European governments have no intention of letting Turkey into the EU at all. Moreover, eight of Turkey’s negotiating chapters were frozen two years ago because the EU disapproves of Turkey’s refusal to open its ports and airports to trade with Cyprus. All in all, far from moving steadily forwards, Turkey’s accession talks are going nowhere fast. Read more

One of the pleasures of the Czech Republic’s forthcoming presidency of the European Union will be to watch in action a thoughtful, humorous, bow-tied 71-year-old who rejoices in the name of Karl Johannes Nepomuk Josef Norbert Friedrich Antonius Wratislaw Mena, prince of Schwarzenberg. Karel Schwarzenberg, as he is better known, has served as the Czech foreign minister for the past two years, and I caught up with him over breakfast.

An old friend of Vaclav Havel, the philosopher-playwright who became the Czech head of state after the anti-communist Velvet Revolution of 1989, Schwarzenberg will have the task of keeping the Czech ship on a steady course at a time when quite a few other EU countries are worried about how Prague will handle its six months in the hot seat. Schwarzenberg is diplomatic elegance personified but, as with Havel, that doesn’t mean he’s afraid to speak his mind. Read more

The global economic downturn is hitting Serbia hard, so you’d think quite a few Serbs would be interested in the €1m reward that the government is offering to pay for information leading to the arrest of Ratko Mladic. Curiously, however, the trail of the fugitive Bosnian Serb war crimes suspect never seems to get any warmer.

Roughly two months ago, a western government passed a tip to the Serbian government as to Mladic’s whereabouts. A raid was carried out, but the tip turned out to be a dud. Wisely, perhaps, the Serbian authorities chose not to publicise this incident. Read more

What do Albania, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru and Palau have in common with the United States? They were the only countries that supported the US when the United Nations General Assembly voted this month on a Serbian-drafted resolution to seek an opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legality of Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February.

Even though the court’s ruling will have no legal force, Serbia interpreted the UN vote as a diplomatic triumph. Seventy-seven countries, including Serbia itself, backed the resolution. Not one of Washington’s Nato allies supported the US. Seventy-four countries abstained. Read more

Russia’s invasion and de facto partition of Georgia in August sparked uproar across Europe, or so it is said. In reality, many European Union countries were soon itching to restore relations with the Kremlin to normal as soon as was decently possible. And on a second issue critical to Europe’s security – the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina – many EU capitals have more in common with Moscow than is comfortable for them to admit.

Thirteen years after the US-brokered Dayton agreement ended the 1992-95 civil war, Bosnia is at peace but barely qualifies as a functioning state. Its two halves, the Muslim-Croat federation and the Serb Republic, co-operate as little as possible. Its two main nationalities, the Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Serbs, are as alienated from each other as ever, a point illustrated by last weekend’s local elections across the country. Read more

The European Union can hardly contain its pleasure at the arrest of Radovan Karadzic, the murderous Bosnian Serb leader who was picked up in Serbia on Monday after 11 years on the run. For all those who believe the best way to ensure long-term stability in former Yugoslavia is to accelerate Serbia’s path to EU membership, Karadzic’s arrest was cause for celebration. 

The arrest appears to vindicate the EU’s strategy over the past year of overtly supporting pro-EU political forces in Belgrade. The aim is twofold: to neutralise the militant nationalists who have poisoned Serbian public life for the past 20 years, and to persuade Serbian voters that their best hope of a decent future lies in aligning their country with the EU. Read more