Visas and the Czechs – savoring success

Half a year ago I wrote on Rumeli Observer about the upcoming Czech EU presidency.

At meetings in December, which ESI had organized in Prague, Czech politicians and civil servants had defined ambitious goals for the Western Balkans in 2009:

“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.”

Six months have passed. The Czech presidency is coming to a close. Our manual on Czech decision makers – in particular the government chapter – has become outdated faster than anybody expected.

There has been much negative comment on the events in Prague across Europe following the resignation of the Topolanek government. As one friend, an advisor to several EU Commission presidents told me recently, “How dare the Czechs bring down a government during their presidency? How could they be so unserious?” At the recent ECFR meeting in Stockholm another veteran EU policy maker noted that Prague had offered “the best argument” for finally getting rid of the rotating presidency … “at least in the past we could be sure that small countries took this challenge seriously. Now even this is no longer true.” And there is (almost) universal loathing of Vaclav Klaus’ performance among policy makers across the continent.

However, when it comes to the Balkans and the EU, the Czechs have actually done as well as they had promised. That is no small achievement.

It is not Prague’s fault, after all, that the Bosnian elite prefers quarreling about the prolongation of the mandate of a political corpse – the vanishing OHR – rather than focusing its energy on making the compromises necessary to submit an application for membership; something that remains impossible as long as there is an OHR in Sarajevo.

Even Sweden, though it will try hard, will struggle to bring the OHR to a close under its upcoming presidency. This became apparent at a recent brainstorming on the issue I attended in Haga castle near Stockholm (organized and chaired by Carl Bildt and Valentin Inzko).

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Haga castle near Stockholm

Haga castle has a bright future ahead of it: soon after our Bosnia brainstorming the Swedish heir to the throne was set to move in and make it her private home. Bosnia’s future, unfortunately, is more clouded. I will write more on it here soon. The conclusion, in a nutshell, is disheartening. For now put your money on there still being an OHR at the end of 2010 – an office with no mandate to do anything, and blocking any more serious progress by its very presence. Even Valentin Incko himself does not seem to believe that he will be the last High Representative …

Nor can Prague be blamed for the failure of Serbia and the EU to agree on whether or not there is now full compliance with the ICTY in Belgrade.

It would have been nice if the Czech presidency had succeeded in having Slovenia lift its veto on Croatia, or Greece on Macedonia. On the other hand, even France did not manage this. I am not sure Sweden will, either.

What Prague could achieve, however, it did achieve. The Montenegrin EU membership application was, after a few tense moments, forwarded to the Commission for assessment. This set an important precedent for Albania, which has also (finally) recently applied.

If Serbia follows later in 2009, and if Macedonia is told in the autumn that it now meets all criteria to begin real talks (even if Greece then proceeds to veto an opening), this could yet become a decent year for the region.

And perhaps more than just decent. In recent months, the issue of visa liberalization has moved forward almost as rapidly as envisaged by friends of the region. Just note the recent conclusions of the EU General Affairs Council meeting.

They state:


The Council restates its support for the dialogue on visa liberalisation with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, based on the roadmaps containing clear and realistic benchmarks and on a country-by-country assessment. The Council recalls that the countries concerned should continue to focus on full implementation of these benchmarks.

In this regard, the Council welcomes the updated assessment reports presented by the European Commission on the progress in the visa liberalisation dialogues with these countries. The reports reflect the clear progress made by these countries in meeting the benchmarks set out in the visa liberalisation roadmaps. In this context, the Council encourages the European Commission to present as soon as possible a legislative proposal amending Regulation 539/2001, as it applies to the Member States, in order to achieve a visa free regime ideally by the end of 2009 with those countries that will have met all the benchmarks.

The Commission now has a mandate to do the right thing (see also a recent op-ed by my colleague Alex Stiglmayer and myself in EU Observer): to recommend visa free travel for a group of countries.

There is, as well, a target date for a result: “ideally by the end of 2009”. This is almost as good as it gets in EU affairs. EU foreign ministers have already indicated that they will both welcome and endorse a Commission recommendation!

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Sasha Vondra and Jan Kohout – they did well for the Balkans

This means that it is now realistic to expect that all Western Balkan countries – except Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo – could obtain both EU candidate status and visa free travel sometime in 2010.

Albania – whatever its future government – can catch up as well. And if, against all odds, the OHR is closed in 2009, even Bosnia might avoid falling into a new group of hopeless laggards (with unfortunate Kosovo bringing up the tail).

Perhaps there are indeed a few people in Prague who, despite all the turmoil of recent months, deserve a quiet moment to savour this success.

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.