Balkans

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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.