OPINION

Letter from Porto Carras

The scheme was first hatched at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Athens. Then, the word was that the George Papandreou people liked it so much that they hiked it all around the «Western Balkans» (an expression created by EU leaders at their 1998 summit meeting in Vienna). It also spread in Brussels. The EU Commission instantly saw it as nifty peacetime strategy, a natural for its policy stating that «the future of all European countries is within the Union.» Correctly anticipating the future, EU leaders – four years too late – believed that offering membership to the Balkan states was the best way to stabilize the region after years of war in the 1990s. Consequently, on 26 May 1999, precisely, the European Commission proposed the creation of a so-called Stabilization and Association Process (SAP) for Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Yugoslavia – as it was called at the time, now Serbia and Montenegro – and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Last Saturday at Halkidiki’s summit, the last before EU enlargement takes its membership to 25 – in the presence of the leaders of the five Balkan states – Prime Minister Costas Simitis stated that cooperation agreements with those five counties of the region will follow the model of enlargement. As for the semiotics of the issue, or the «science» of signs, here is one: A new religious sense is apparent, that preaches that countries that want to be become EU members must love one another, as well and as much as they love the EU. Are you listening Serbia and Albania? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Greek President Costis Stephanopoulos similarly expressed this way of looking at life, when he said last Saturday that the common European vision would be fulfilled when «we learn to love Europe as we now love our own country.» The message to the Balkans was that they will be incorporated into the EU – but at a price – when they meet the Copenhagen criteria and no sooner. And when they adopt the union’s body of laws – the so-called aquis communautaire: some 80,000 pages of regulations and directives. There was also another message to them which said: «Know thyself. Everything in moderation. Now the future of the Balkans within the European Union lies wholly in the hands of the countries of the region.» At the moment, the EU is offering substantial financial assistance to the unfortunate countries of Southeastern Europe. Paradoxically, it also issued the directives to preserve, protect and defend its various peoples – from themselves. Between 1991 and 2001, the EU provided some 7 billion euros. During its presidency Greece has advocated greater generosity. Alas, to no avail, since only Italy, Austria and Luxembourg have endorsed Greece’s proposal. Nevertheless, another 200 million euros has been earmarked for the reform processes in Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, FYROM and Serbia-Montenegro for the period from 2004 to 2006. The statement issued after the EU-Western Balkans summit at Porto Carras said that in the three-year period since the Zagreb meeting, significant progress has been made. It was also announced that following a Serbian proposal, a dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina should commence during July. However, the talks are expected to focus on practical issues like energy, transportation, missing persons and returns of refugees – not the final status of the province. Sure enough, the status of Kosovo, which, though legally part of Serbia is de facto a United Nations protectorate, must be resolved before any talk of membership. All the time, I could not help wondering why the five Balkan countries wish so eagerly to enjoy the patronage of what is known rather euphemistically as the EU. Obviously, they have not read a recent report which predicts trends for economic growth in the new 10 countries due to join the Union next May. This rather pessimistic account was recently published by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Therein it is stated that with a benign scenario of «sound policymaking and benefits from EU membership, new members would catch up with average EU incomes in 56 years.» The «average» scenario, based on present circumstances, yields a catch-up time of nearly 100 years. As for the unsatisfactory worst-case scenario, it leaves the countries worse off by joining the EU than they would be by staying out. Well, anyway, the five west Balkan countries – if they wish to be like us – will have to fight organized crime and corruption first of all. Now read this: Two weeks ago (June 16), a German diplomat working for the UN’s interim administration in Kosovo was sentenced by a German court to three-and-a half years’ imprisonment for an aid swindle. Joe Truschler had lodged EU funds in a Gilbratar bank account. A final note: I apologize for not reproducing any «atmosphere» from the summit, but every time I was close to penetrating one of the off-limits enclosures, a policeman would indicate that I should go back to the windowless press tent. However, having followed several televised press conferences along with thousands of other journalists, many from exotic lands, I can submit some observations. Comments from TV presentations, as they were unscripted, permitted a few glimpses of the truth to slip out. PM Costas Simitis: He seemed ill at ease. His suits – he never wears anything else – didn’t seem to fit quite well. His sense of humor was non-existent. As the head of the EU’s play-it-down-the-middle Greek presidency, he looked like the boy you let play only if it was his ball and playground. Foreign Minister George Papandreou came across much better. In an age of bombast, he was a statesman of civility and grace. As for the European leaders: While watching them having their «family photos» taken, one could see them turn to talk to their neighbors, just as one does at a cocktail party when you run out of conversation. And as for «Miss Summit» Roula Vavalea – as the efficient all-purpose organizer of this Halkidiki meeting was nicknamed – what else could she be but the «Hostess with the Mostest?»