Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The last 25 million: the EU should find a better solution for the Western Balkan

Becoming a member of the EU is a very complicated procedure. At every step the candidate country has to prove that it achieved some goals in building a state that is follows the EU model in economy and human rights.

In Middle Europe this worked rather well as all the countries were allowed into the EU at once. On the Balkan however, the EU is allowing the countries nearly one by one and this is having a devastating effect. The promise of getting faster into the EU was a major factor of the separatism in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia. In Montenegro too it is the most important reason for seperatism.

But seperatism is not the only damage. The border of the EU is a kind of iron curtain that seriously hampers the movement of people and economic relations. Just consider the fate of Macedonia. In 2007 the iron curtain will fall on its east side when Bulgaria joins the EU. 5 years later Macedonia may join the EU and the iron curtain will move to its west and north, blocking the borders with Albania, Kosovo and Serbia. And this is a small country with 2 million inhabitants that is very dependent on import and export for its economy. Bosnia may have a similar fate. And then we don't even talk about the ethnic minorities that will find themselves separated from the "motherland".

The EU has now launched the idea that the Balkan countries that are not yet EU members should have their own free trade zone. I have mixed feelings about that.

Sure, it is better than the present situation of many bilateral trade ties - each a bit different from the other. But it does not solve the fragmenting effect that the whole EU access process has on the Balkan.

For that reason I believe that the EU should give up on applying this procedure for the Western Balkan. Instead it should give the whole Western Balkan basic access to the European market and allow the free movement of people from there. Specific markets like grain and milk should be closed for those countries until they have complied with the EU requirements for those markets. Those countries would not be EU members and have no votes in Brussel. Nor would they be automatically entitled to subsidies and funds.

With the whole Western Balkan having a population smaller than Romania this should not be too much of a sacrifice for the EU. And it is widely expected that for many years most EU countries will exclude Bulgarians and Romanians from their labor markets. With similar treatment for the Western Balkan there wouldn't be much protest in the EU.

By controlling access to specific markets and subsidies the EU would have enough leverage to get the Western Balkan countries to adopt the rest of the EU requirements.

Seperate accession for each country may create quite some trouble:
- former foes may use the opportunity to block the other's entrance
- given the level of corruption in Kosovo and Albania it may take a long time before they are considered "ready". It would be irresponsible to keep them all that time isolated outside the EU.

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