EU to protect enlargement from Kosovo tensions

10/12/2007 | Kevin Crowley

Accession prospects for Croatia and Bosnia should not be affected by the expected Kosovo independence declaration, say diplomats and analysts

The European Commission will ensure that any instability surrounding the fate of Kosovo will not affect EU enlargement prospects in the region, Emerging Markets has learnt. In particular, front-runner Croatia remains on track to join, even as an impending declaration of independence in Kosovo threatens to antagonize Serbia and reawaken regional tensions.

Croatia has completed 14 of 35 negotiating chapters, and is progressing towards entry at “cruising speed”, Krisztina Nagy, spokesperson for EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn, told Emerging Markets.

And Vladimir Drobnjak, Croatia’s chief negotiator with the EU, echoed this sentiment, expressing confidence that his country’s aspirations will not be derailed by rising ethnic tensions in the Balkans.

“The EU is a force for stability in the region and our joining will set an example to our neighbours. The question among member states is not if Croatia will join, it is when, and I can safely say it will come before the end of the decade.”

Although he argued that the Kosovo situation would have no direct bearing on Croatia’s accession prospects, he said he is hoping “there will be a unified EU position on Kosovo,” which would “make it much easier for all member states.”

Drobnjak acknowledged that the tormented disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s had left some obstacles to EU membership. Croatia remains in dispute with neighbouring Slovenia over sovereign waters and fishing rights. The issue could take on extra significance next year, when Slovenia assumes the rotating presidency of the EU council of ministers.

“It is something we take very seriously, I am convinced that Croatia’s actions are firmly in line with the international law of the sea,” Drobnjak said, adding that he favoured seeking a settlement in the International Court of Justice.

Enlargement should not stop with Croatia, the ambassador added, given the importance of the EU for regional stability.

“The EU should do everything it can to facilitate Bosnia’s entry. In any case, the EU is coming closer to Bosnia – once Croatia joins [Bosnia] will almost be surrounded by EU states.”

The EU last week signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Bosnia, potentially a first step towards the country’s accession. This is a further reason for optimism that EU enlargement will stay on track, said Goran Saravanja, chief economist of Zagrebacka Banka in Croatia.

“It is a signal that the EU is far more focused on the region than it was in the early 1990s, and is looking not to repeat the mistakes of then – they’re sending a clear signal to Bosnia and therefore to the wider investor community about their intentions,” Saravanja told Emerging Markets.

He added that Croatian accession was also important to the EU, because the country is “a source of stability and progress, some sort of example to the rest of the region.”

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