The message from Prague is loud and clear

Our meetings, organised by ESI and the Prague Security Studies Institute, took place in the first week of December at the marvelous Czernin Palace of the Czech Foreign Ministry. Czech policy makers, journalists and experts spoke to a distinguished group of policy and opinion makers from the Western Balkans about the Czech debate on enlargement.

Only a few weeks are left until the end of this year, when the Czech Republic will assume the EU presidency for six months.

The message from senior policy makers in Prague concernin the Balkans was loud and clear:

“We are expecting your countries’ applications for membership during our presidency.  We have been preparing to receive your applications for membership.  We have coordinated with the government of Sweden (the second EU presidency in 2009) in order to be able to promote the cause of the Western Balkans.  We are ready.”

Despite this clear message I left Prague feeling nervous. Listening to key foreign policy makers here it seemed as if, for practical reasons, the big window of opportunity in 2009 is closing for most of the Western Balkan states even before the year has begun.  Countries in the region only have a few weeks left to get their act together if they want to keep alive their hope to graduate to candidate status in 2009.

Here are some of the basic facts leading to this sobering conclusion:

1. Applications

In order to become a candidate for EU membership a country must first submit a letter to the EU presidency that it actually wants to become a member. This is what Turkey did in 1987, Croatia in 2003, and Macedonia in 2004. Before this happens, nothing else, beyond an association agreement is possible. To do this with any chance of success, a country must obviously be recognised by all EU members as a state: this excludes Kosovo for the foreseeable future.

The historical record is that some EU countries will always try to discourage applications until applicants have made clear their determination and have made their case proactively based on a strong national consensus (I have written about this in an earlier blog on the gatecrasher principle). Montenegro might soon offer a good example of how to combine  determination, focus and flexibility to arrive at a positive result – even when facing an initially sceptical (French) presidency.

2. A decision by the Council

Following the submission of a formal application by a given county the European Council needs to agree to to ask the European Commission to prepare an opinion on it (an avis).

Though it is always posssible for the EU council to refuse to do even this, in the case of the Western Balkan states such a step would send such a strongly negative signal that even the most sceptical EU members appear unwilling to do this. (Serbia’s case is different: without progress in bringing Ratko Mladic to The Hague the Dutch government would almost certainly block any further steps for now).

However, the agenda in early 2009 will be  packed.  Unless an application comes soon enough some EU countries might be tempted to postpone dealing with it for a few months.

There are two European Council meetings under the Czech presidency (and two under the Swedish presidency): the first two in March and June, the last in December.

In order to get all 27 countries to agree to ask the Commission to prepare an opinion on an application, weeks of preparation and consensus building might be necessary. As one senior Czech official told me: “We are prepared for and we would welcome having four applications from the Western Balkans on our table during our presidency.”  But for a positive decision to be reached at the March Council an application would need to be submitted at least a few weeks beforehand, i.e. by January.  Montenegrins have been aware of this constraint for a while.

3. The Questionnaire and the Commission Opinion

Following a request by the Council the Commission sends the applicant country a questionnaire with thousands of questions to be answered.

Even if the Commission does not delay this step and even if a country works hard on the questionnaire the whole process (Council asks Commission for an opinion; Commission sensdsa out the questionnaire; applicant country X completes it; Commission drafts an opinion) is expected to take at least six months.

Thus, if the European Council decides in March to task the Commission to draft an opinion, a realistic best case scenario is that this would be done in time for the last Council summit under the Swedish presidency in December.  (An added complication are EU parliamentary elections and following this the formation of a new Commission in 2009).

The best case scenario already requires a lot of things to go well: if all countries of the Western Balkans submit their applications for membership within the first few weeks of 2009, and if the Czech presidency and other friendly member states convince fellow EU govenrments to task the Commission to study these applications; and if all the Balkan countries focus their energies on filling out the questionaires, and if they also succeed in addressing the major criticisms and concerns outlined already in the regular European Commission opinions; then the December 2009 European Council could grant all of them candidate status.  December 2009 would then mirror the Helsinki summit of 1999, a major breakthrough for enlargement at the time.

This would be a strong and welcome message to the region, and to the world, that things are advancing in the Balkans.  It would be all the more useful at a time of growing regional uncertainty, as to the impact of the world economic crisis on local economies and the deepening confusion over future EU policy in Kosovo. It would also send a strong signal in the wake of possible approval of the Lisbon Treaty by a second Irish referendum in 2009.  Finally, it would be a fitting conclusion to  the Swedish presidency, which has enlargement as one of its top priorities.

So far, so promising.

Speaking off the record, however, senior members of the Czech government and administration increasingly doubt that all of the countries of the region are likely to take the steps required to make this scenario even a theoretical possibility in 2009. As one stold us, “we are studying country by country to see where we can move things forward.”

What this incresingly means today is the following set of reduced ambitions:

  1. to complete negotiations with Croatia in 2009;
  2. to help “one country, perhaps two” obtain visa-free access for its citizens to the EU already in 2009: that country being Macedonia (the clear front-runner when it comes to fulfilling the conditions relating to visa free travel);
  3. to help Montenegro get a positive decision at the March EU summit so that the Commission may start working on an opinion following an early Montenegrin application.  Bosnia would be left behind, Albania’s next steps remain uncertain and Serbia is likely to loose more time as well.

Let me admit: I usually like to look at the bright side of things, to see opportunities even when they are small. There is still a small chance that the Western Balkans will finally wake up to the fact that 2009 is a real window of opportunity.

Perhaps a pending Montenegrin application would shake up confused and divided political establishments in Bosnia, Albania and Serbia and stir them into action?

This time around countries in the region cannot complain about the lack of positive and encouraging signals: the messages from Prague and Stockholm – and even from the Commission – have been clear. However, as seen from Prague in early December 2009, the main new question appears increasingly why Serbia, Bosnia and Albania find it so hard to take advantage of significant good will in both EU governments and EU institutions.

This, however, is an issue for another blog.

2 Replies to “The message from Prague is loud and clear”

  1. Hi Gerald!

    Very interesting blog concerning the Prague message, but did not find something concerning the fact that President Klaus is somehow euro sceptic and I don’t know how he will get on board Western Balkan countries, facing a particular situation with his refusal towards Lisbon Treaty. In my opinion it is very ambitious that Montenegro gets the status before 2010 taking into account the previous precedents with Croatia and Macedonia. You know that for Croatia it took 14 months to get the candidate status and for Macedonia 19 months from the moment they applied for EU Membership. Regarding Albania, I am afraid we are too late and we are on the eve of parliamentary elections, which means that government can apply in January 09 – as prime minister recently promised – but it can’t deliver! Does this mean that we won’t be the part of reduced ambitions for 2009-2010? Hopefully not!

    Best regards,

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