EU Balkan Salzburg meeting March 2006
On 11 March 2006, EU Foreign Ministers met with their colleagues from the Western Balkans.
This event was supposed to have been an opportunity to reaffirm the EU's commitment to the Western Balkan, countering growing anxiety in the region that its European prospects are slipping into the distant future.
Even before the summit began, however, it was clear that this opportunity would be missed.
Instead of a proper EU-Balkan Summit - as took place in 2000 in Zagreb and in 2003 in Thessaloniki - this was only an informal meeting. Instead of a Declaration, this produced only informal conclusions.
The conclusions themselves were decidedly disappointing in content - notable mainly for what they failed to say.
In Thessaloniki, the EU had noted the importance attached by the people of the region to achieving a more liberal visa regime. Now, all references to the goal of visa liberalisation have disappeared, in favour of a vague promise of visa "facilitation". It is now possible that potential candidates in the Balkans will be treated less generously than Russia. There is a risk that visa fees will in fact increase.
In place of a strong reaffirmation of the Thessaloniki promise of a "European destination" for the region, this pledge is now watered down by reference to an "internal European debate on the future of enlargement". For the first time, there is a reference to the EU's "absorption capacity" as a potential barrier to accession.
In its January 2006 paper, "The Western Balkans on the road to the EU", the Commission argued that "EU policies for the region should focus more on equitable and sustained economic development". But there was nothing in these conclusions as to how this vital agenda might translate into concrete action.
EC President Barroso and Enlargement Commissioner Rehn toured the Balkan region in February. While this sent an encouraging signal it needs to be backed by EU member states. Salzburg has done nothing to calm concerns across the Western Balkans that the EU is backsliding on its promises.
After the Salzburg meeting, a test of the EU's commitment towards the Western Balkans will be the regulation for IPA ("Instrument for Pre-Accession"), the EU's assistance tool for candidates and potential candidates.
Encouraging proposals have come from the European Parliament. The Foreign Affairs Committee suggested a series of amendments to the original IPA draft. These would strengthen the EU perspective of the region. They include the following:
- (Recital 16a - new) Potential candidate countries and candidate countries who have not yet been accredited to manage funds in a decentralised manner should however be eligible, under the Transition Assistance and Institution Building component, for measures and actions of a similar nature to those which will be available under the Regional Development component, the Human Resource Development component and the Rural Development component.
- (Recital 13) Assistance for potential Candidate Countries may include some alignment with the acquis communautaire, facilitating the formulation of EU-compatible provisional National Development Plans aiming to build institutional absorption capacity for future EU assistance, especially in the areas of rural, infrastructure and human resources development, as well as support for investment projects.