Oped in Koha Ditore: One decade has been lost. What about the next one?

One decade has been lost. What about the next one?

Op-ed by Gerald Knaus (for Koha Ditore)


In Athens, spring 2003


One decade ago, in spring 2003, the New York Times published an appeal by four Balkan leaders, the presidents of Croatia and Macedonia and the prime ministers of Albania and Serbia. Its title: “The EU and South-East Europe need each other.”[1] The occasion was a special Balkan meeting of the World Economic Forum in Athens where all these leaders also came together.

I was there too at the time, and I remember both the appeal and the atmosphere in Athens well. In fact, together with my friend Misha Glenny, I drafted it. There was a sense of urgency in the air, and of anticipation. Zoran Djindic, the prime minister of Serbia who had delivered Slobodan Milosevic to the Hague tribunal, had been assassinated by ultra-nationalist members of the Serbian security forces. Croatia had handed in its application to join the EU, the first Western Balkan state to do so. The host of the meeting, Greece, then the EU’s rotating president, pushed hard to get a European commitment to continued Balkan enlargement.

Shortly before the Athens gathering Boris Trajkovski, the president of Macedonia, invited me to draft an appeal that he planned to ask other leaders to co-sign. He knew that the region would receive a better hearing if it spoke with one voice. He was concerned. His own country had recently been on the verge of civil war. Serbia was on the edge, its ultranationalists growing in confidence. The future of Montenegro and Kosovo was not yet settled. Would the EU, following its 2004 enlargement to Central Europe – then just about to happen – get tired of further expansion? The Balkan leaders’ appeal warned: “Until the whole Southeastern Europe is safely integrated into the European Union, the job will not be complete. And until it is, Europe cannot feel secure about itself.”

One decade later, where do we stand? Today, when EU leaders talk about crises in South-East Europe they think of Athens not Skopje, of Nikosia, not Belgrade. Europe does not feel “secure about itself” but it is not the Western Balkans or the threat of renewed conflict that keeps EU leaders awake, literally, at one crisis summit after another.

Montenegro and Kosovo are independent states; the fear of armed conflict in the region has never appeared more distant. And yet, despite these important breakthroughs, it is hard not to regard the years since 2003 as a lost decade for the Balkans. Boris Trajkovski tragically died in an airplane crash in the Bosnian mountains, on his way to submit Macedonia’s own application for EU membership. His country has been stalled for years now by a Greek veto (a threat which did not appear real in 2003 in Athens). Serbia, ten years after the death of Djindic, has still not even opened EU accession talks. Albania is not an EU candidate yet. The Greek foreign minister in spring 2003, George Papandreou, became prime minister, only to be swept away by the Greek economic melt-down. 2003 was perhaps the last success of Greek diplomacy. At the European Union summit on the Balkans in Thessaloniki in summer EU leaders stated their “unequivocal support to the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries. The future of the Balkans is within the European Union.”[2] Croatia used the past decade, opened accession talks, closed them, and is today on the verge of accession. And yet, it is likely that ten years from now in 2023 Croatia will still be the only Balkan country inside the EU.

Rereading the Trajkovski appeal today highlights a further disappointment. It contained a specific proposal: to make EU regional and cohesion funding available to the region, so as to help it catch up economically, rather than fall further behind. The appeal warned that “the long-term stability of Southeastern Europe depends on the region’s economic health, but this does not mean the usual plea for more money … We are committed to opening our markets to our neighbors and to the EU. We have made huge progress in curbing inflation. And we are now greatly encouraged by the proposal by Greece … that the Thessaloniki summit meeting focus on the possibility of applying cohesion and development policies in our region.”

This was a hope that has not come true. The Western Balkans remains one of the poorest regions of Europe. In Serbia today less than half of the working-age population is actually employed. Unemployment levels in Macedonia and Bosnia are disastrously high. Foreign direct investment in the region, which had transformed the economic structures of Central European countries, has fallen to very low levels. And yet, if a focus on underdevelopment in the Balkans has never been more urgent, the EU’s confidence in its ability to bring about convergence and growth in its own periphery has rarely been lower. The 2003 Trajkovski appeal stated that “The EU has a remarkable record of triggering economic success by helping poorer regions — Ireland, Greece, Spain and Portugal have experienced veritable revolutions in social and economic development in the last 20 years.” It is hard to imagine anybody writing like this today, in the wake of bail-outs, bank failures and rapidly rising unemployment in Spain or Greece.

EU leaders no longer worry about war in the Balkans. They are no longer confident in their ability to bring about economic convergence. They fear the weakness of democratic institutions in Romania or Greece. They worry about inadequate regulation in Cyprus or Spain. Given this state of affairs: what arguments can sway them to open their institutions to accept even poorer states, with even weaker institutions, and even worse images among the public and political elites in Berlin, Paris or The Hague?

Perhaps Greece will prepare for its EU presidency in 2014 by changing its policies on Skopje and Pristina.  Perhaps Serbia and Kosovo will soon reach an agreement that allows both countries to move beyond their confrontation. Perhaps Albania will manage to hold free and fair elections this summer. Perhaps Bosnia’s leaders will soon be able to put together a credible application for EU accession. Perhaps Macedonia’s leaders will be capable of renewing the national consensus to focus on EU integration that existed in 2003. Perhaps politicians throughout the region will wake up late at night worrying about youth unemployment and the inadequacy of vocational training, about export opportunities and the best way to use scarce public resources for growth, rather than about building  statutes or wasting public money on prestige infrastructure of little proven economic benefit. And then, perhaps, a successor of Boris Trajkovski will invite all his regional counterparts to an informal meeting to seriously discuss what they might do together to correct the image of their region, driven by the recognition that the whole region has dropped out of the focus of the rest of Europe.

If Boris Trajkovski would be around today, and would propose drafting a new appeal for Balkan leaders to sign and publish, what could it say? Appeals are expected to end with proposals, a sense of hope, recommendations. But sometimes it is better to resist this temptation. To acknowledge just how steep the wall is that one has to climb. To recognise that before any new appeals to the EU a whole series of steps have to be taken by the region itself. To recognise that time matters; and that April 2013 is another crucial moment which Balkan leaders miss at their peril. I believe Trajkovski would have realised this. Will his successors?

Perhaps this is not a time for appeals at all, but for a blunt and honest recognition: a decade has been lost. The next might be as well. And it is not by formulating words on paper that this can be prevented.

Newest ESI report on Saving Visa Free Travel

Dear friends,

2013 could be a big year for visa free travel in Europe, with important decisions upcoming concerning Turkey and Moldova. It could also be a disastrous year for the cause of free travel if visas are reimposed on the Western Balkans.

It is appropriate, therefore, that the first report ESI publishes in 2013 – on 1 January to be precise – deals with this very question. You will find the full report on our website later this week, but if you want an advance copy right away let me know (write to g.knaus@esiweb.org). Below you find for now the executive summary and some of the most interesting findings as exerpts from this report. We also recently presented these findings to senior officials in Rome, Berlin, Brussels and Stockholm.

In the meantime the whole ESI team and your Rumeli Observer wish you a happy and productive 2013!

NEW ESI REPORT – 1 January 2013

Saving visa-free travel – Visa, asylum and the EU roadmap policy

Executive Summary

Since the visa requirement was lifted for Western Balkan countries in 2009, there has been a sharp increase in claims for political asylum by citizens of the region. Barely any of these applicants qualify for asylum. Rather, they are benefitting from national
asylum rules that provide relatively generous benefits during the application process.

Since 2010, EU leaders have demanded that Balkan governments take measures to stem this tide of asylum seekers. In fact, the problem lies with ‘pull factors’ inside the EU. Now, EU policymakers find themselves under increasing pressure to address the problem directly by suspending visa-free travel for Western Balkan countries. Such a draconian measure would undermine the credibility of the EU’s whole approach to visa liberalisation – not just in the Western Balkans, but also in Moldova, Kosovo, Turkey and the Ukraine. But it is by no means the only solution available.

In the world of justice and home affairs, clear-cut solutions to complex issues are generally hard to come by. There are inevitable trade-offs to be made between controlling borders and allowing the free movement of people; between protecting individual liberties and safeguarding the public. When it comes to visa liberalisation in the Balkans, however, there is a clear solution that reconciles the concerns of all the different constituencies involved. The solution is to make it less attractive for those who clearly do not qualify for asylum to submit speculative or bogus claims.

Under EU rules, all member states provide asylum seekers with financial and material support while their applications are being processes. But there is a sharp difference between two groups of countries: those that take many months to process their asylum
claims, and those that dispose of them within a few weeks. It is the lengthy processing times found in Germany, Sweden and other EU members (up to 8 months with appeals) that acts as the magnet for unjustified asylum seekers. The EU members able to deal expeditiously with asylum claims face a significantly lower numbers of applications.

This paper proposes two possible solutions. One is to address the problem at the national level. Those states that have seen a sharp increase in applications from the Balkans could radically shorten their procedures. They could follow the example of Switzerland, which has recently introduced a 48-hour procedure for applicants from safe European countries like the Balkans. The other option is to tackle the problem at the EU level. The EU should label countries that have completed a visa liberalisation process as “safe countries of origin”, allowing for lighter and quicker processing procedures. We believe that the ideal response would be to pursue both solutions in parallel.

Such a solution would not close off the rights of genuine refugees to apply for and receive asylum. The statistics reveal that countries with shorter procedures in fact accept a higher proportion of their asylum applications. It would, however, help to weed out speculative claims and bring down the costs for European taxpayers. It would also safeguard visa-free travel for the Western Balkans, which has proved a critical step in giving hope and a sense of direction to a troubled region on the EU’s borders.

Update: the full report is now available on our website

Why Croatia’s EU accession will strengthen the EU (in English)

Why Croatia’s EU accession will strengthen the EU

Gerald Knaus and Kristof Bender

First there was the headline in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 9 October: “Brussels reprimands Croatia: ‘Criteria for accession are not yet met’.” Then Gunther Krichbaum (CDU), Chair of the Europe Committee in the German Bundestag, declared: “At this moment the country is not ready to join.” President of the Bundestag Norbert Lammert explained: “We have… to take the most recent progress report of the European Commission seriously: Croatia apparently is not yet ready to join.” On 15 October, Martin Winter wrote in Süddeutschen Zeitung that Croatia is indeed “not mature enough”, but that it is now too late: “It is a pity: Lammert’s objection comes a bit late.”

These are disturbing warnings. Is the EU about to be weakened through the hasty accession of yet another unprepared member? Doesn’t the EU have problems enough already?

In fact, Croatia’s preparations for accession have been widely recognised as remarkable. Since its application for membership in 2003, Croatia has faced demands that were considerably more challenging than those presented to previous candidates. It not only had to pass EU-compliant legislation, but also demonstrate real progress in implementing what were often challenging reforms. These efforts were recognised by the European Parliament in December, with a vote of 564 to 38 in favour of Croatia’s accession, and by the 16 EU member states that have already ratified the accession treaty. Last week’s European Commission scorecard confirms that Croatia is now completing the process of alignment. It’s ‘top ten’ list of outstanding issues – such as the privatisation of three shipyards, a new law on access to information, a national migration strategy and a new recruitments to the border police – are by no means alarming.

So why the sudden chorus of critical voices?

The only real charge to be brought against Croatia is the problem of corruption. On that issue, however, the European Commission’s most rigorous assessments have been fairly positive. The one demand made by the Commission – that Croatia continue its fight against corruption and organised crime – is one that could be made of many EU members. Transparency International’s most recent corruption index puts Croatia ahead of Italy and indeed the whole of South East Europe, including EU members Greece, Bulgaria and Romania. Over the past three years, Croatia has taken action to root out at corruption at the heart of the state, issuing indictments against a former prime minister and deputy prime minister, various cabinet ministers, the head of the customs administration, numerous managers of state-run companies and even the former ruling party itself. This suggests a country that is seriously committed to tackling the difficult legacy of the
Tudjman era.

In fact, since 1999 Croatia has been undergoing a process of radical change to its political culture that goes far beyond the adoption of thousands of pages of EU legislation. In 1999, Croatia’s President Tudjman was still supporting the separatist ambitions of Croats in neighbouring Herzegovina, violating minority rights at home, suppressing media freedoms and obstructing the work of the
Hague Tribunal.

All this has now changed. Croatia has ceased to disrupt state-building in Bosnia, issuing a formal apology in 2010 for the war crimes committed there in Croatia’s name. It has allowed the return of Croatian Serb refugees, and in 2003 a Serb minority party even entered into a coalition government. It has completed the extradition of all those indicted by the Hague, including the most famous, General Ante Gotovina. In Belgrade, this year’s Gay Pride parade was once again cancelled; in Croatia, government ministers were visible participants in the parade.

Compared to 1999, Croatia is now a much more open and liberal society. It will fit into the European Union with no clash of political culture. But proceeding with Croatian accession is not just about rewarding these efforts. It is also a vital political message for Croatia’s Balkan neighbours. It shows what the path to Europe really consists of: visionary leadership and the courage to take political risks inspired by European values.

None of Croatia’s eastern neighbours are close to joining the EU. Only Montenegro has begun the negotiation process, which requires at least a decade to complete. But it is in the best interests of both the EU and the peoples of South Eastern Europe – in Belgrade, Sarajevo, Tirana and Pristina – that the promise of eventual accession remains a credible one. Because, as Croatia has demonstrated so powerfully, it is the accession process itself that offers the best prospects for lasting political change in the region.

The accession of Croatia in summer 2013 will not weaken the EU. On the contrary, the transformation of Croatia demonstrates the power of the EU to bring about lasting change in a region that is gradually emerging from its troubled history.


Why Croatia’s accession will strengthen the EU (in German)

Adriatic Croatia

Opinion piece (in German), 19 Oktober 2012

Warum Kroatiens Beitritt die EU stärken wird

Gerald Knaus und Kristof Bender

Den Anfang machte eine Schlagzeile der Frankfurter Allgemeinen am 9. Oktober: „Brüssel ermahnt Kroatien: ‚Bedingungen für Beitritt noch nicht erfüllt’.“ Dann meldete sich Gunther Krichbaum (CDU), Vorsitzender des Europaausschusses des Bundestages, zu Wort: “Zum jetzigen Zeitpunkt ist das Land nicht beitrittsfähig.” Bundestagspräsident Norbert Lammert erklärte: “Wir müssen … den jüngsten Fortschrittsbericht der EU-Kommission ernst nehmen: Kroatien ist offensichtlich
noch nicht beitrittsreif.“ Und am 15. Oktober schrieb Martin Winter in der Süddeutschen Zeitung, dass Kroatien in der Tat „nicht reif genug ist“, doch dass der Zug schon abgefahren sei. „Nur leider: Lammert kommt mit seinem Einwurf ein wenig spät.“

Es sind beunruhigende Nachrichten, verstörende Warnungen: Wird die EU durch eine überhastete Aufnahme eines unvorbereiteten Landes geschwächt? Hat die EU heute nicht schon genug Probleme?

Kroatien ist ärmer als Deutschland oder Österreich. Allerdings ist sein Durchschnittseinkommen vergleichbar mit dem in Ungarn und höher als in allen anderen Ländern des Westbalkans oder als in Rumänien und Bulgarien.

Kroatien wurde während seiner Beitrittsverhandlungen mehr geprüft als jedes andere Land, das bislang versuchte der EU beizutreten. Es stellte seinen Antrag auf Aufnahme 2003. Vor dem Öffnen und Schließen der 35 Verhandlungskapitel mussten immer konkrete Reformen umgesetzt, nicht (nur) EU-konforme Gesetze verabschiedet werden.

War das Europäische Parlament blauäugig, als es Anfang Dezember mit 564 gegen 38 Stimmen für Kroatiens Aufnahme stimmte? Was ist den 16 EU Mitgliedsstaaten, die Kroatiens Beitrittsvertrag bereits ratifiziert haben, entgangen? Denn man kann davon ausgehen: wäre Kroatien heute noch nicht reif für die EU, dann würde es das wohl auch zum vorgesehenen Beitrittstermin im Sommer 2013 nicht sein. Ernste Probleme lassen sich nicht in ein paar Monaten beheben.

Doch um welche Probleme geht es eigentlich, aufgrund derer dieses kleine Land (mit gut 4 Millionen so viele Einwohner
wie Rheinland-Pfalz) eine mögliche Belastung für die EU darstellen könnte?

Ein oft hervorgehobenes Thema ist Korruption. Hier ist allerdings im Fall Kroatiens der Grundtenor des von Lammert zitierten Kommissionsberichtes positiv. Die einzige konkrete Forderung der Kommission ist eine Selbstverständlichkeit: Kroatien müsse den Kampf gegen Korruption und organisiertes Verbrechen fortsetzen. Im neuesten Korruptionsindex von Transparency International schneidet Kroatien so gut ab wie die Slowakei und besser als Italien und als alle anderen Länder Südosteuropas, einschliesslich der EU Mitglieder Griechenland, Bulgarien und Rumänien. In den letzten drei Jahren gab es eine Serie von Anklagen wegen Korruption, unter anderem gegen einen ehemaligen Premierminister, einen ehemaligen Vizepremier, gegen Minister, den Chef der Zollverwaltung, Manager von Staatsbetrieben und sogar gegen die frühere Regierungspartei. Natürlich gibt es weiter Korruption, in Kroatien so wie in Italien oder Österreich, aber es ist auch gerade in diesem Bereich sehr viel passiert.

Bezüglich der Umsetzung von EU-Gesetzgebung in Kroatien stellt der Kommissionsbericht fest: „Kroatien hat weitere Fortschritte in der Verabschiedung und Implementierung von EU Gesetzgebung gemacht und vollendet nun seine Angleichung mit dem acquis.“ Nicht alles ist gut: „Die Kommission hat Bereiche identifiziert, in denen weitere Bemühungen notwendig sind, und eine begrenzte Zahl von Aspekten, für die verstärkte Bemühungen erforderlich sind.“ Die Kommission nennt überdies noch zehn offene Punkte, auf die sie besonderen Wert legt, darunter die Vollendung der Privatisierung dreier Schiffswerften; die Verabschiedung eines neuen Informationszugangsgesetzes und einer Migrationsstrategie; den Ausbau zweier Grenzposten; oder weitere Anstellungen bei der Grenzpolizei (das wird, bis zu Kroatiens Schengenbeitritt, ein Thema bleiben).

Das sind alles sinnvolle Ziele. Doch entscheiden diese Punkte darüber, ob Kroatien als Mitglied die EU stärken oder schwächen würde?

Denn der tiefgreifendste und wichtigste Wandel in Kroatien seit 1999 ist neben der Umsetzung der EU Gesetze die Veränderung seiner politischen Kultur. Noch 1999 unterstützte Präsident Tudjman separatistische Kroaten in Bosnien. Er weigerte sich mit dem internationalen Strafgerichtshof zusammenzuarbeiten. Er trat Minderheitenrechte, Pressefreiheit und andere demokratische Grundwerte mit Füßen. Als er im Dezember 1999 starb, war sein Land international isoliert.

Danach begann sich Kroatien dramatisch zu verändern, angefangen mit der Politik gegenüber Bosnien. Die Rückkehr vertriebener Serben wurde ermöglicht. Es kam 2003 sogar zu einer Koalition zwischen Tudjman’s ehemaliger Partei, der HDZ, und der Partei der kroatischen Serben. Alle vom Den Haager Tribunal angeklagten mutmaßlichen Kriegsverbrecher
wurden ausgeliefert.

Kroatien ist heute ein anderes, offeneres, liberaleres Land als 1999. In Serbien werden weiterhin von manchen die Massaker in Bosnien in Frage gestellt. 2010 besuchte Kroatiens Präsident Josipovic hingegen Bosnien und bat für im Namen Kroatiens
begangene Verbrechen um Verzeihung. In Belgrad wurde die Gay Parade erneut abgesagt; in Kroatien nahmen Minister an der Parade in Split teil.

Genau darin aber liegt auch die wichtigste Botschaft eines kroatischen Beitritts an seine Nachbarn in Südosteuropa: um eines Tages EU-Mitglied werden zu können, braucht es Verantwortung, Führung und den Mut, politische Risiken einzugehen. Es
braucht Ausdauer und einen starken nationalen Konsens. Es ist in jedem Fall ein Marathonlauf, wenn nicht gar ein Triathlon, und kein Sprint.

Auf absehbare Zeit wird keiner von Kroatiens südlichen Nachbarn der EU beitreten. Verhandungen brauchen auf jeden Fall viele Jahre. Bislang ist es nur Montenegro gelungen, diese zu beginnen. Doch ist es im Interesse, sowohl der EU als auch der Region, dass dieses Ziel glaubwürdig bleibt, in Belgrad, in Sarajevo, in Tirana, in Skopje.

Der Beitritt Kroatiens im Sommer 2013 wird die EU nicht schwächen. Im Gegenteil, schon jetzt haben die Veränderungen im Land, die das Versprechen eines EU Beitritts verursacht hat, den Einfluss der EU in Südosteuropa gestärkt. Es gibt viele Gründe, sich über den Beitritt Kroatiens zu freuen und diesen als kleinen, aber wichtigen europäischen Erfolg zu sehen.


Am Sonntag, 21.10.2012, wird auf ORF 2 um 23.05 der von ESI mitgestaltete Dokumentarfilm „Kroatien: Heldendämmerung“, eine neue Folge der preisgekrönten Serie „Balkanexpress – Return to Europe“, ausgestrahlt.