EVEN as European Union leaders yammer about resurrecting their constitution, their attention this year may end up focusing instead on the Balkans. Twice in the past 15 years, the region has tested the EU's claims to have ended wars on the continent: in 1991-92, when EU members split over backing independence for Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia, and in 1998 when they stood by as Serbs and Albanians slaughtered each other in Kosovo. Now three events are coming together to turn the first half of 2006 into a third chance for the EU—and perhaps the trickiest period in the Balkans for some years.
The first is a referendum on independence in Montenegro. If passed, it would take yet another slice off Serbia (with which Montenegro exists in uneasy union). Next, talks on the independence of Kosovo (also nominally part of Serbia) could result in an offer of conditional independence, meaning that the rights of the Serb minority in Kosovo are protected by international guarantee. And third, the European Commission will rule in May on whether Romania and Bulgaria have met the conditions for EU membership. Had this ruling been made last year, say commission officials, the answer would have been no. That would make headlines, even if its effects prove less obviously dramatic than the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. (If the ruling is no, the two countries will merely join in 2008, instead of 2007.)
What the three events have in common is that they will change the Balkans' fragile status quo (with luck for the better, but it would be foolish to count on that). All are also reminders of the importance of the EU's role. Only Brussels can promise local politicians that their future lies in integration with Europe, not with their historical grievances and inward-looking nationalism. EU countries have promised to help Montenegro if it plumps for independence. And although Kosovo's future is being hammered out under the auspices of the United Nations, it will in practice be the EU that will have to look after the place.
On the face of it, the Europeans have been making good on past promises of help. Last year saw a flurry of negotiations in which nearly every Balkan country started some form of talks with Brussels. Croatia began full membership talks in October (at the same time as Turkey). Bosnia and Serbia began the preliminary stage that should lead to talks. In December, the EU gave Macedonia formal status as a candidate (a step up from Serbia and Bosnia, a step below Croatia). Talks to get Albania to the preliminary stage continue. And three economic deals have been done between the Balkans and the EU.
Yet even all these may add up to no more than a good start. Ultimately, the EU's powers of persuasion rest on the lure of full membership. Now the onset of “enlargement fatigue” risks undermining that promise. Recently, the disease has broken out even in that bulwark of expansion, the European Commission. One commissioner has said that the EU should let in Romania and Bulgaria, but then close its doors. Enlargement fatigue may not only reduce the EU's appeal. It could also make it harder to dole out interim benefits that go with membership talks, such as aid for new roads or help with agricultural reform. Last month's budget deal has already cut the money earmarked for Balkan reconstruction by about a fifth.
The Balkans will anyway not respond to the EU's gravitational pull in the same way as did the central and eastern Europeans. The Balkan people are further removed than the Czechs and Poles were from EU standards of democracy and free markets. They have to set up functioning governments before they can become functioning democracies. This means that much of the Balkans will have to wait for membership even longer than did the central and eastern Europeans. And it is no longer clear how long accession can retain its allure, or how attractive the “pre-accession” phase can be made.
At worst, there is a risk that the EU could end up dividing the Balkans, rather than modernising it—splitting the region into countries on the road to membership (Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Macedonia) and the ghetto of the rest, whose status would be uncertain and whose “pre-accession” limbo might be made worse by cuts in aid. For Bosnians and Serbs, there is a danger of EU membership becoming like an old Soviet joke: we pretend to prepare for membership, they pretend to be ready to give it to us.
Doubts over the EU's influence in the Balkans will be either allayed or confirmed over the next six months. At minimum, it must avoid the divisions and passivity that bedevilled previous episodes in ex-Yugoslavia. But it could do better. And by happy accident, the EU presidency—usually a silly arrangement for each country to set the agenda for six months—has fallen at this critical juncture to the largest single investor in the Balkans and one of the strongest supporters of EU membership for Balkan countries: Austria. The Austrians may be notoriously hostile to Turkey's membership aspirations, but they have said that the Balkans are their top foreign-policy priority. What is less clear is whether they are ready to spend political capital to get reluctant partners to do things to give the rhetoric substance.
Michael Emerson of the Centre for European Policy Studies, a think-tank in Brussels, suggests that Balkan countries might be given membership of the customs union between the EU and Turkey, replacing a tangle of 31 regional trade agreements. He also proposes that the EU should encourage Balkan countries to set up visa-free travel among themselves, to avert travel restrictions that would otherwise arise as some countries join. These are good ideas in themselves, but more important is the message they would send: that the Balkans matter even when blood is not being shed, and that the EU wants to improve the entire region, not just (to borrow a phrase from the constitutional debate) to cherry-pick the bits it likes best.