Serbia as the EU’s Western Balkan accession catalyst

By on February 12, 2018

Those hoping for another wave of enlargement like that of 2004 will be sorely disappointed by the EU’s “enhanced” and “credible” enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans. Others are deeply concerned by the delineation of two front-runners, Serbia and Montenegro, and the potential consequences should they join in 2025 ahead of the rest of the pack. Though the EU perspective is clearer for all, for most it is not as clear as was hoped or expected.

The hypothesis that Serbia accedes to the Union prior to both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, respectively, has aroused fear that Belgrade will employ its resulting leverage in a malign manner to either obstruct or heavily condition subsequent accessions. The ‘Cyprus Scenario’ has been invoked by some.

The dynamics at play, however, can also be viewed from a different and more positive perspective. Upon its accession to the EU, Serbia’s still sizeable ethnic kin in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, respectively, would remain separated by the borders that have arisen since the bloody demise of the former Yugoslavia. EU membership, by abolishing these divisions between peoples, would provide no better incentive for Belgrade to work to ensure that the accession of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo shadows its own.

The enhanced strategy already heavily preconditions Serbia’s progress with resolution of the bilateral disputes it grapples with today. The need to secure a “legally binding normalisation agreement“ with Kosovo – which can advance on its European course only “once objective circumstances allow” – is repeated regularly throughout the strategy.

Then there is Chapter 35 – formally titled ‘Open Issues’, but in this case largely pertaining to normalization of its relations with Kosovo – one of the first chapters Serbia opened and inevitably one of the last it will close. It contains a host of conditions that complement the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue and the normalization of relations between the two.

The position of Kosovo Serbs has already been regulated to a greater or lesser extent by the Brussels Agreement, through which Serbian police, judges/prosecutors and civil protection personal have all been integrated into the Kosovo framework. Implementation of one of its main facets, the Association/Community of Serb-Majority Municipalities (A/CSM), would further stabilize the community’s existence in Kosovo (and would pave the way for the Belgrade-run interim municipal councils to be abolished); as would Pristina’s renewed commitment to the return of internally-displaced persons (IDPs).

With respect to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Belgrade has long been spoken about (and often fairly) in destabilizing or unconstructive terms. But as has been argued in these pages before, it is increasingly imperative to make a virtue of Dayton’s external dimensions.

The EU’s strategy places a strong emphasis on the process of transitional justice, and it would be wise to heavily condition adherence to its own words; “there is no place in the EU for inflammatory rhetoric, let alone for glorification of war criminals from any side.” In doing so, it can help foster these positive external dimensions of Dayton to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s benefit.

Were Serbia to achieve accession to the EU by 2025 – and it remains a big if, the date being only realistic and not binding – it could spur a new dynamic of integration; one incentivised by its ethnic kin in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, respectively.

Whilst for many this hypothesis will require a leap of faith, one that stretches too far for some, it only echoes the words of Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the European Union, who insisted that, “We are not integrating states, we are uniting people.” The Western Balkans need be no different in this regard.

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