Although there was a lack of enlargement progress in 2012, the EU message to the region is still positive.
By Muhamet Brajshori for Southeast European Times in Pristina -- 02/01/13
Croatia joining the EU this year may boost the enlargement process for the region. [AFP]
The EU concluded its annual enlargement report in December, but it did not meet the expectations of the regional countries.
Albania was not offered a candidate status, and while candidate countries Serbia and Macedonia made progress in the accession, they were not given concrete dates. Kosovo is still waiting for a date to launch stabilisation and association agreement talks.
Sabine Freizer, director of Europe program at the International Crisis Group, told SETimes that while EU member states have come out with conservative conclusions on enlargement for the Western Balkans, the European Commission (EC) wants to keep some dynamism in the process.
"Serbia and Kosovo are the two countries that did best at the council meeting. Even though they received no firm dates, a clear timeline was defined for Serbia to begin the screening process and accession negotiations, and for Kosovo to start [stabalisation agreement] negotiations," Freizer said.
Eduard Kukan, chairman of the EU parliament for relations with Southeast Europe, told SETimes there were several interesting happenings in the region regarding the EU enlargement and political progress in 2012.
"The message sent to the region is quite positive: EU recognises and welcomes the progress and is willing to keep its enlargement process commitment," Kukan said.
According to Freizer, the most frustrating situation in the Western Balkans is with Macedonia, which is still unable to begin accession negotiations though it has met sufficient criteria.
For several years, Skopje has been blocked from beginning negotiations due to its name dispute with Greece. Bulgaria has also brought forth its concerns with Macedonia.
In spring, the EC intends to review the steps for a name dispute solution, and the EU Council will again address the issue in June.
"I'm questioning the possibility of Skopje and Athens getting any closer to finding a solution to their dispute, under the current UN mediated format in the next few months, after years of no progress," Freizer said.
Kukan said he does not consider the "enlargement fatigue" to be a result of the economic slowdown, as the EU cannot afford to lose focus on integration.
"It's true that EU is looking more within, however this does not mean that the enlargement process is neglected. It should be clear that this process is not part of the problem, but could be a part of the solution for the European project," Kukan said.
But Freizer disagrees. There is clearly "enlargement fatigue" in the EU due to the financial crisis, the rise of nationalist parties, and their pandering of immigrant fears and xenophobic sentiments.
She said 2013 can boost enlargement with Croatia's formal EU entry -- the first new country to join since 2007.
"In several EU countries there is criticism that the visa liberalisation provided too much to the Western Balkans. But overall, the EU, and particularly the Commission, remain committed to enlargement, and nobody wants to give the impression that it's coming to a halt," she said.
In the first half of 2013 Ireland will head the EU presidency. The country has said it will make enlargement of the Western Balkans and Turkey a top priority.
"We are enlargement enthusiasts. We want to inject new energy in this process," Lucinda Creighton, Irish European affairs minister, told the press.