Wednesday, February 13, 2008

BALKANS: Promises of EU More Sweet than Serious

BALKANS: Promises of EU More Sweet than Serious
By Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Feb 12 (IPS) - Sweet talk on the joys of European Union (EU) membership is quite a favourite among leaders of the Balkans, particularly in their public appearances. But when it comes to serious talk, the EU looks quite far.

EU membership is one of the principal foreign policy goals of the former Yugoslav nations Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, surrounded as they are by EU members Slovenia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

But developments in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia in recent days have cautioned people against any early EU membership.

Over the weekend, leaders of six ruling parties of Bosnia-Herzegovina (BH) met at Siroki Brijeg near town Mostar. Under the auspices of EU representative for Bosnia Miroslav Lajcak, they were due to agree on constitutional reforms of the complicated state structure.

Two of the three ethnic groups in Bosnia, Croats and Serbs, oppose any centralisation that would put them under the "rule of Muslims". But constitutional reform is a pre-condition for signing the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) that leads to EU membership.

Instead of agreement, the six leaders unexpectedly withdrew from an agreement on police reform adopted in December, another EU demand for the SAA.

Muslims leader Sulejman Tihic rejected the December agreement. Serb leader Milorad Dodik criticised him for "obstructing the road to the SAA agreement," and suggested that Tihic's Party of Democratic Action (SDA) be excluded from the talks.

At a press conference after the disastrous weekend meeting, Lajcak said Tihic was endangering the EU prospects for Bosnia.

"Tihic should know that his behaviour is now contrary to what the EU and most of people in BH (Bosnia Herzegovina) expect," Lajcak told BH TV. "Further rejection of police reforms would only leave BH behind other countries in the region."

Recent polls show 65 percent support for EU membership in the Serb-dominated Republic of Srpska, and at 82 percent in the Muslim-Croat Federation. The two make Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Croatia was at odds over the weekend with neighbouring Slovenia, currently the presiding nation of the EU. Croatia, with an SAA agreement already in hand, stands closest among former Yugoslav nations to EU membership, expected by the end of the decade.

Croatia imposed an Ecological and Fisheries Protection Zone (ZERP) in its Adriatic waters bordering Slovenia. Slovenia has only a small part of the Adriatic coast, and unresolved issues over sea borders with Croatia.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn repeated his warning to Croatia last week to withdraw the ZERP, warning that it could jeopardise Croatia's access to the EU. Non-implementation of the ZERP was one of the conditions agreed with Brussels when the SAA agreement was signed.

"We should be able to solve this problem in good European spirit, so I call all sides to lower the tensions and try to find a political solution," Rehn said in Brussels.

The government of Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader has done little to explain the issue to the public, and the media spoke of the ZERP as a "condition" being set for Croatia to join the EU. Support for EU membership plummeted as a result to 49 percent, according to Cro-Demoscope polling agency.

"If the referendum on EU membership was held today, it would not be positive in Croatia," said Zagreb daily Jutarnji List. But it pointed out that the ZERP was not the only problem; Croatia has not introduced the judicial and administrative reforms demanded by the EU.

"The whole issue is a false dilemma imposed by the government -- either ZERP or the EU," it added.

Serbia has initialled the SAA agreement, but still has to meet some conditions such as extradition of alleged Bosnian war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.

But as the expected date for declaration of Kosovo independence draws near, probably Feb. 17, the government is becoming increasingly nervous. Serbia opposes both independence for Kosovo and plans to bring in an 1,800 strong EU mission which would take over from the UN administration and implement judicial, police and other reforms.

As the EU announced the mission last Monday, Kostunica refused to call a government session which should have confirmed the signing of the interim agreement with the EU for Feb. 6. It has now been postponed indefinitely.

Olli Rehn said he regretted "the obstruction by certain politicians in Belgrade to blocking the signature…they have really failed to hear the choice of the Serbian people."

Kostunica said on the other hand that "the political agreement that the EU has proposed while it deploys a mission to dismember our country is a signing, Serbia would indirectly recognise the independence of Kosovo."

"Despite the 75 percent support among people to come closer to the EU, Serbia now looks like a nation that does not want that," analyst Misa Brkic told IPS. (END/2008)
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