Generating a sense of momentum

March 14, 2020 0 By JohnValbyNation

Generating a sense of momentum

High-level dialogues as alternative route.

The bids by Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to join the European Union have been in trouble for years. Macedonia, a membership candidate since 2005, remains stalled on the starting line, unable to open accession talks because of a veto from Greece, which objects to its name. This, in turn, has been feeding an increasingly assertive  Macedonian nationalism and has reinforced the authoritarian instincts of the nationalist-conservative government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. Bosnia’s paralysis, meanwhile, is the product of a clash over how centralised the weak state should be, with Bosnian Muslims pushing for more centralisation against Bosnian Serbs’ resistance. 

The inability of the two countries to make progress towards EU membership calls into question the very principle on which EU enlargement rests: the notion that the prospect of eventual membership will induce local leaders to undertake reform.

Macedonia’s leadership sees no benefit from painful reform as long as Greece blocks the launch of membership talks. Bosnia’s quarrelling parties, divided along ethnic lines rather than on policy, rightly believe that membership is too distant to justify relinquishing their hold on their respective ethnic constituencies. That grip is to a considerable degree based on patronage, as well as on fears of losing out to other groups in the country’s zero-sum politics.

There is mounting evidence that the European Commission understands this negative dynamic. A tentative departure came in March from the Commission’s insistence that the traditional accession process is sufficient to generate momentum for reform. Štefan Füle, the European commissioner for enlargement and neighbourhood policy, launched a ‘high-level accession dialogue’ with Macedonia in Skopje. At the end of last month, Füle repeated the process in Brussels with the leaders of Bosnia’s main parties.

Tough reforms

Commission officials describe the dialogues as being “complementary” to the accession process, and have warned Bosnian and Macedonian politicians that they will still need to undertake tough domestic reforms if they want to make progress. In fact, the ‘road-map’ for Bosnia and the ‘targets’ for Macedonia that emerged from the dialogues are a re-statement of reforms that the EU has been demanding for some time. A diplomat suggested that there is “nothing new in the substance” of these two documents. But the fact that the Commission deemed a re-statement necessary is significant in itself.

Jelko Kacin, a Liberal MEP from Slovenia who knows the Balkans well, welcomes the dialogues with Bosnia and Macedonia, despite the differences between the two countries. Bosnia’s leaders “need a high-level dialogue simply to understand how far behind they are, how different their perception of reality is”, Kacin said.

“We need effective democracy, with all the institutions this requires. Bosnia is a state without state structures, and with six decision-makers,” Kacin said, referring to the leaders of the main parties. “Such a dialogue can raise awareness of this among politicians.”

Fact File

Progress report

The countries of the “Western Balkans” – a term invented by the EU to designate the countries of former Yugoslavia minus Slovenia plus Albania – are at very different stages in their bids to join the EU. In addition to Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina they are:

Croatia is on schedule to become a member on 1 July 2013, after five years of accession negotiations. Montenegro began its membership talks at the end of last month. Serbia became a candidate for membership in March and hopes to get the green light for the opening of negotiations by the end of the year. The expected formation in the coming weeks of a coalition government of Socialists and the nationalist Progressives could delay the talks.

Albania submitted its application for membership in April 2009, in a move that was generally seen as premature by the European Commission and the member states. It has made little progress towards the opening of talks, primarily because of the extreme polarisation of the country’s politics.

Kosovo has not been recognised by five member states – Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain – and has therefore been unable to apply for EU membership. The European Commission is preparing a feasibility study for a pre-accession agreement with Kosovo that it hopes to adopt in October, but it is not clear whether the necessary unanimity is possible among member states.

A senior Commission official agrees that Bosnia’s problems are structural and go “beyond a simple lack of clarity on what needs to be done”. “Bosnia needs a proper, efficient co-ordination mechanism, it needs to find a way to have a clear representation vis-à-vis the EU,” he said.

But the Bosnian Serbs under Milorad Dodik, president of the quasi-autonomous Republika Srpska, oppose any move toward greater centralisation, insisting on maintaining the weakness of central government envisaged in Bosnia’s constitution, drafted by western governments as part of the 1995 Dayton peace agreement.

The launch of the high-level dialogue left Dodik satisfied, according to a participant: a presentation by a former Spanish junior minister on her country’s experience with devolution made it plain to everyone that the Commission will not demand greater centralisation from Bosnia, just greater co-ordination.

Power play

Macedonia, by contrast, appears to be a more straightforward – if equally intractable – problem: the interplay between Greece’s blocking of membership talks and the policies of Macedonia’s government. Greece’s veto of the Commission’s recommendation, repeated year after year, that membership talks should be opened with Macedonia has given Gruevski’s government the space to engage in nationalist posturing and to consolidate his hold on power. “There is just one man who decides on everything, and that is Gruevski,” says Kacin, who supported the opposition Social Democrats in last year’s general election.

Antonio Miloshoski, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of Macedonia’s parliament and a former foreign minister under Gruevski, rejects the accusation that Gruevksi is using Greece’s veto as a cover. But he acknowledges the “massive frustration” caused by the Greek stance and welcomes the high-level discussions.

“The dialogue makes sense because instead of wasting time while being blocked by Greece, now we spend our time more productively. It’s a training ground for the negotiations. The capacity of our political and administrative institutions will be improved with this dialogue.”

Eduard Kukan, a centre-right MEP from Slovakia, recalls that his country went through a similar experience as a regional laggard in the late 1990s, and was helped by an initiative from the Commission not dissimilar to the high-level dialogue with Macedonia and Bosnia.

“We simply went through the different chapters [which make up the accession negotiations], and when we started the actual accession negotiations we could use all the experience gained,” says Kukan, who chairs the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo.

But diplomats from the EU and from the Balkans also understand that the high-level dialogues create a new dynamic within the EU. “It will affect the credibility of the accession process if negotiations are not launched once we meet the road-map,” Miloshoski says. “This would be a slap in the face not just for us but also for the Commission. We expect to be in a better diplomatic situation than before because our performance will be linked to that of the Commission.”

This link-up between the Commission’s management of the accession process and reform in Macedonia and Bosnia could yet come back to haunt Füle.

Toby Vogel