Balkan nations fear recession-hit EU pulling up drawbridge

29th March 2009, Comments 0 comments

Last week German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a "phase of consolidation" in the EU once Croatia becomes the 28th member in a few years.

Brussels -- Facing an uncertain economic and institutional future, some European nations, led by Germany, want to slow the EU's enlargement process, leaving Balkan nations feeling like hostages to the recession.

Last week German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a "phase of consolidation" in the EU once Croatia becomes the 28th member in a few years.

With that message ringing in their ears, EU foreign ministers met in the Czech Republic on Saturday with countries it has promised eventual membership: Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Croatia itself.

These other countries are "very annoyed by Merkel's proposal" and are seeking reassurance, one European source said.

"EU enlargement makes sense, and history has proved it, not only politically but also economically," Serb Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic argued this week, saying enlargement should not be stopped "because of fear".

Many EU governments feel this is not the time to consider bringing a batch of new, poorer eastern European nations into the bloc which has already expanded from 15 to 27 members since 2004 and has now plunged into recession.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn highlighted the impact of "eroding credibility" of a nation's EU perspective.

This experience has already "weakened... the driver of legislative and democratic reforms in Turkey, which has not been in the interests of Turkey nor of the EU," said Rehn, standing beside Djelic.

"We should learn from this and avoid the same happening with the western Balkans, which are even more fragile than Turkey," he added.

Turkey began EU accession discussions in 2005 at the same time as Croatia but has since fallen far behind due to its treatment of Cyprus and broader concerns about allowing such a large, mainly Muslim nation into the club.

"I just hope we don't make enlargement a scapegoat to some economic and social ills which actually originated from Wall Street rather that the main street of Belgrade or Zagreb," he added,

According to several European officials, the EU is unlikely to adopt the German proposal to formally draw up the EU drawbridge, though the idea has found support in some nations such as Belgium and the Netherlands.

In practice many of the EU hopefuls are already in a kind of Euro limbo.

Even Croatia's progress has been halted for several months by EU member Slovenia due to a border dispute dating back to the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Several member states, including Germany, have for several weeks held up the processing of Montenegro's formal candidature request.

Meanwhile Netherlands is vetoing any advance by Serbia until former Bosnian Serb wartime military chief Ratko Mladic, a top genocide suspect, is behind bars.

So far Slovenia is the only nation to emerge from the former Yugoslavia and become an EU member.

"In recent years we've seen a tendency to delay, not to make any more political investment in enlargement and that will continue," predicted Green Euro MP Joost Lagendijk, a Balkans specialist.

After Croatia sneaks in, all subsequent decisions risk being pushed further back for at least two years, "until there is some clarity on the Lisbon Treaty and the economic relaunch," he added.

European foreign ministers will begin their two days of talks on Friday, with the Middle East also on the agenda.

Amelie Bottollier-Depois/AFP/Expatica

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