The European Union began pressing leaders of Balkan nations that emerged from the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia to make the region more secure and prosperous hours after Croatia became the bloc’s 28th member.
EU officials in Zagreb and Belgrade discussed political cooperation, infrastructure projects and support for future membership bids with local leaders, Croatian President Ivo Josipovic said today. EU-supported meetings will continue, with plans to invite French President Francois Hollande to the next gathering, Josipovic said. EU President Herman Van Rompuy met Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic in Belgrade, while Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt flew to the Serbian capital today.
The EU deepened its presence in the Balkan peninsula today by admitting Croatia as the second former Yugoslav republic to join the world’s largest trading bloc after Slovenia. Still in the wings are Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia, which still must overhaul judicial and economic systems and create a lasting peace in a region devastated by war in the 1990s.
“A new chapter is being opened in this region of Europe,” said Van Rompuy after meeting Dacic in Belgrade. “I trust that other Balkan countries will feel inspired by these momentous steps, leave aside divisions and concentrate on common interests, values and goals.”
The EU now has 45 million residents in the Balkans, including Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Slovenia, a former federal partner with Croatia before Yugoslavia fell apart. The fighting that ensued was the continent’s bloodiest since the end of World War II.
As a result, the development of roads, bridges, utilities and other infrastructure was hampered, putting the region behind other post-communist nations that joined the EU in 2004, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland.
The focus is now on Serbia, the largest of the former Yugoslav states, and its relations with its former province, Kosovo. Bosnia-Herzegovina, sandwiched between Croatia and Serbia, also remains under international supervision.
European leaders agreed last week to start entry talks with Serbia by January and push for closer political and economic ties with Kosovo after an EU-brokered agreement on April 19 that laid the groundwork for future reconciliation.
Ultra-nationalists on both sides have condemned the accord, making the region potentially less stable.
Dacic expects talks with the EU to last four to five years, though political analysts see the process taking as long as a decade. Serbian authorities will soon appoint a chief negotiator and teams for each of the 35 chapters needed to fulfill before entry is approved, Dacic said.
Immediate progress to securing the start of EU entry talks hangs on implementing the agreement with Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008 and has been recognized by almost 100 countries, including the U.S. and 23 of 28 EU members.
The agreement “paves the way for final reconciliation between communities that need each other, that share a common geography and history and puts an end to a period of conflict that erupted in the heart of Europe two decades ago,” said Van Rompuy. The EU “itself was born from the ashes of the Second World War, and now becomes a place of reconciliation and encounter for the Balkan nations.”
In Zagreb, Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic said he hoped his country, which started accession talks last year, will use improved regional support to make progress and Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga said the initiative “will put the entire region in the direction of the European Union.”
The western Balkans, where the unemployment rate averages 22.8 percent, remains heavily reliant on the euro area for investment and trade, whose own recession is preventing an acceleration in the economic recovery of the Balkans, the World Bank said on June 18. Growth may be driven by energy, agriculture and exports, it said.
“All the countries in the region are on the road to the European Union, and as all the decisions regarding enlargement are made unanimously, Croatia will have some very direct influence in the region,” Croatian Deputy Prime Minister Vesna Pusic said in an interview today. “Our plan is to be a good influence on the region, as we are so intertwined that any instability affects us all directly.”