Balkans

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 >>