Clueless in the Balkans

I've been a harsh critic of the EU's approach to enlargement in general and the Western Balkans in particular, but the European Commission did the only thing it could realistically do when it postponed giving Romania and Bulgaria a firm entry date on Tuesday. If it had recommended to the EU member states to postpone entry by one year, it would have removed any incentive for further reform in Sofia and Bucharest since the two would have entered by 2008 one way or another. The Commission would also have set itself up for a nasty fight that it couldn't have won -- postponing Bulgaria's accession would require a unanimous decision by the EU's 25 members, something that would have been impossible to achieve. Giving them a firm 2007 date would have had much the same effect -- it would have provided an incentive for the two governments to slack. Judy Dempsey doesn't agree with this analysis:

By delaying a decision over whether Bulgaria and Romania will be ready to join the European Union next year, the European Commission has sent a negative signal to the countries of the western Balkans Albania and some states of the former Yugoslavia whose chances of joining now seem more remote than ever, according to experts in the region.

She quotes an expert from the "European Stability Initiative," a Berlin think tank that has consistenly managed to be as wrong on Bosnia as one could possibly be:

"The western Balkans has witnessed over the past 12 months that engagement by the EU toward their accession prospects has slowed down," said Kristof Bender, a Balkans expert at the European Stability Initiative, an independent political research group. "The commission's decision on Tuesday only confirms this. Frankly, the EU's credibility in the region has been seriously undermined."

This has it exactly backwards. The EU has lost credibility in the region for many reasons, but being tough on two accession countries that are clearly not fully there yet isn't one of them. What would have happened with the Western Balkans countries if they had seen that membership can be had on the cheap? Would that not have undermined the reformers there much more than the exceedingly fair, and graciously delivered, decision by the Commission on Tuesday to say, "yes, but?" I'm all for enlargement. I also happen to think that the EU has too often gone soft on its own commitments, and I'm afraid we may see many examples of that in the Balkans over the next year. But Bulgaria isn't one of them.



The grades are in, now a couple more days and I am off to some glamorous summering in exclusive Balkan locales. There will probably be a few days of blog silence, or at least intermittent posting, after Saturday, then as soon as I am able to set up a nice fast connection in Belgrade, your faithful correspondent will be with you again.