Sunday, May 18, 2008

Balkan exceptionalism

May 15th 2008
From The Economist print edition

What Serbia's election says about the European Union's enlargement

Illustration by Peter Schrank

A BRITISH tabloid set a high standard for bombast when it once took credit for the re-election of a Tory government with the headline: “It's The Sun Wot Won It”. This week European Union leaders were taking credit for another election upset: the unexpected success of the pro-European coalition led by the Serbian president, Boris Tadic, in the general election on May 11th. The Serbs had “clearly chosen Europe,” said the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner. Jan Marinus Wiersma, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, declared that the election was “a form of referendum in which citizens gave their support for the country's future membership of the EU.”

That may be a little premature. It is true that Mr Tadic's block is called the “Coalition for a European Serbia”. His supporters waved the EU flag of gold stars on blue. But Mr Tadic did not win outright, and it matters enormously which parties end up in a new coalition government. If the wrong parties cobble together a deal, they could yet lead Serbia into deeper isolation.

Yet it would be absurd to deny that the EU played a role in the election. European governments agreed to offer Serbia a couple of timely (if symbolic) concessions just days before the vote. Serbs may feel “humiliated” that 19 EU countries have recognised the independence of Kosovo after the province broke away in February, says a diplomat. But the EU also reminded them that Europe is about good things, such as freedom to travel. If it was not exactly the EU “wot won it”, European governments did at least send a signal that they would rather have Serbia in the club than brooding dangerously outside.

That holds true also for Serbia's neighbours in the western Balkans, who are being jollied along with visa concessions and the like, and assured that they enjoy a “European perspective” (to use the Brussels jargon for eventual membership). It all feels rather pragmatic, even generous. And that is odd, because when it comes to enlargement in general, older members of the club are in a foul temper.

It is not only the future that causes alarm. The mood is sulphurous over Romania and Bulgaria, which joined in 2007. Bulgaria has already seen tens of millions of EU funds frozen amid fears of fraud. The figure of suspended aid could rise to billions when a European Commission monitoring report comes out this summer. The new Italian government is talking menacingly about restricting Romanian migrants. The latest Eurobarometer poll on enlargement found majority support for the admission of only one new country: Croatia, a relatively advanced place whose beaches heave with sizzling Italians and Germans each summer. Croatia is on course to join in 2010 or 2011.

Even more paradoxically, some of the countries keenest on admitting Serbia and others have voters who are the most alarmed by enlargement. Migrant-phobic Italy led the way (together with Greece) in arguing for the EU to be flexible over demands that Serbia co-operate with prosecutors hunting war criminals. Austria has lobbied tirelessly for Balkan bits of the former Austro-Hungarian empire, starting with Croatia. Yet Austrian voters now oppose admitting any Balkan country other than Croatia by large margins (and a whopping 81% are against Turkish membership). Similarly, French ministers may rejoice that Serbia's voters choose Europe, but in 2006 France was pushing the idea that future enlargement should be assessed according to the EU's “absorption capacity”, a dangerously vague term that includes voters' “perceptions”. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is publicly against Turkey's membership.

If enlargement is so unpopular, why do so many EU leaders want the credit for Serbia's vote for Europe? There are two, linked explanations. The first is that holding the door open to Balkan countries such as Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia and the rest does not imply support for enlargement in general—it is a specific strategy for preventing further instability in Europe's backyard. And the second is that enlargement mostly works like that.

Consolidation, not enlargement

Arguably, enlargement as a general project does not exist. Moves to expand the EU are more often responses to particular crises, and they trigger big squabbles until it becomes clear that no better alternative exists (the 1995 expansion to take in Finland, Sweden and Austria being the exception). Greece was admitted in 1981 to bind it to the West, even though everybody feared it was not ready. It took nine years of argument to get Spain and Portugal in, amid cries of alarm (loudest in France) over cheap Iberian workers and farm produce. In December 1989, as Communist regimes fell across eastern Europe, the French president, Fran├žois Mitterrand, proposed that ex-Warsaw Pact nations should be invited to join a loose “European confederation” (the idea died, not least because Mr Mitterrand invited Russia too). The EU hopes of Bulgaria and Romania only became plausible during the Kosovo crisis of 1999, when their airspace was needed to allow NATO jets to bomb Serbia.

Today's Serbia and the other Balkan applicants for entry may not be easy cases. But their admission does not pose “existential” questions for the EU, notes one diplomat, just a lot of hard work on building up clean, capable governments, in which scary nationalists are marginalised. Croatian negotiators even talk smoothly of “consolidation” rather than “enlargement” nowadays. Larger candidates for the EU, notably Turkey and Ukraine, cannot do that. They pose big questions, such as how to relate to the Muslim world or how to live with Russia.

The Serbian election could have been a lot worse. A thumping win for nasty nationalists would have seriously delayed EU expansion into the western Balkans. But supporters of admitting Turkey, say, should avoid premature congratulation. The western Balkans remains an exceptional case. Enlargement as a broader cause was not the winner this week.

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