EU walks fine line on Balkans

VIENNA – European Union foreign ministers will walk a fine line when they meet with their western Balkan colleagues today between telling them the region’s hopes to join the bloc are intact and appeasing enlargement fatigue in the EU. The 25-nation group promised Albania and the countries that emerged from the former Yugoslavia in 2003 – after three Balkan wars in the 1990s – that their future lay in the European Union if they proved serious about economic and political reform. But public opinion in Western Europe has grown skeptical of further enlargement after 10 mainly Eastern European states joined in 2004, and that mood was a factor in the rejection of an EU constitution in France and the Netherlands last year. Austria, hosting the ministers in Salzburg, has put the region, once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at the center of its six-month EU presidency, It argues that the carrot of EU membership is key to promoting reform and reconciliation in the region after the Balkan wars of the 1990s. «The beacon European Union must be held up,» Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik told a news conference ahead of the EU talks, which began yesterday with discussion of the Middle East. «The European perspective is the fuel for the reform of those societies, and to reiterate that and make it tangible is our common goal,» she said. The European Parliament, France and Germany have said the EU cannot enlarge beyond the pending admission of Romania and Bulgaria until its institutional future, cast into limbo by the French and Dutch votes, is sorted out. Some governments insisted on adding a reference to the Union’s «absorption capacity» in a draft resolution for the Salzburg meeting, a wording that has become code for leaving a loophole to back out of membership pledges to candidate states. «The door to EU membership is kept open, that is the carrot the EU is holding out,» said an Austrian government source. «If you consider the debates about enlargement, the fact that it is doing this can’t be taken for granted.» The EU gave the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) its coveted candidate status in December without setting a date to start accession talks. While qualifying their promises, ministers will keep up the pressure on Albania, Serbia-Montenegro and Bosnia to fight organized crime, combat drug and human trafficking and improve border controls. «It is our common goal during the Austrian presidency to point out the necessities that exist to create more security,» said Plassnik. Austria wants to launch projects for closer cooperation and the joint training of police and border patrols in the region, said Austrian Interior Minister Liese Prokop. «We want to export security in order to import security,» she said. But any progress on easing visa requirements, a key concern of the countries, would only come step by step, and country by country, and in a way that could always be reversed. Serbia in particular was warned by the EU last week that its talks on closer association may be put on ice if it fails to bring war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian-Serb military commander charged with genocide over the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, to justice by the end of March. Serbia is also struggling with Montenegro’s possible departure from the countries’ union after a referendum in May, and with talks on the future status of its Kosovo province after a bloody conflict between ethnic Albanians and Serbs. «We are aware that the Serbs are getting a lot of stick at the moment,» said the Austrian source. «But we can’t spare them the Mladic issue. That’s something we have to ask them for.»