DIFFICULT CUSTOMERS: Prime ministers Erdogan of Turkey and Gruevski of Macedonia at a meeting in Skopje, September 2011.
A question at the core of the debate on European Union expansion is whether the incentive of possible membership of the bloc reaches the parts that other incentives do not.
In cases in South Eastern Europe such as Croatia, and Serbia – which in 2011 finally complied with long-standing requirements to capture and hand over war crimes suspects – it seems that it does. But in other cases, it seems that the drawcard of possible EU membership is not sufficient as a factor on its own.
Arguably the most complex case among many is that of Turkey, which in 2011 showed an ever-increasing assertiveness in the region while domestically conducting policies that appeared to pay no regard to criticisms from Brussels.
Of course, in the case of Turkey it is questionable whether, ultimately, EU membership really is on offer. Franco-German reservations are well-known and while the most public are probably not the only ones. For this and other reasons, Turkey responds with its own ambivalence about the EU, and 2011 made it even clearer that Ankara has other audiences that it seeks to impress.
Ankara has been adamant about boycotting Cyprus’s presidency of the EU, forthcoming in 2012. It has been unrelenting in upholding its satrap on the divided island, the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" which it stands alone in recognising. Turkey follows its own path on the Cyprus gas issue, deploying warships and its own exploratory vessels.
Turkey has reasons to feel strong. This is not just a matter of having the 17th strongest economy on the planet. Nor is it rooted solely in the fact that the AKP party was elected to a third term in June. Opportunities for its "neo-Ottomanism" as critics call it have come thick and fast amid the turbulence of the Arab Spring.
Ankara has moved fast to build ties with new regimes in Egypt and Tunisia. Libya provided Turkey not only the chance to reset relations but also to be seen to be tangling with France over the Nato military action.
Turkey, not uniquely, is driven by twin imperatives of economics and foreign policy. About a quarter of its exports are to the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, but at the same time it clearly is driving hard towards a leadership role, including as a broker (while simultaneously a player) on issues such as Iran’s nuclear programme.
At the same time, arguably to build its street cred in the Arab world, Turkey has exploited to the hilt its tensions with Israel over the Gaza flotilla incident of 2010. Its hard line, including the expulsion of Jerusalem’s ambassador and the downgrading of diplomatic ties to second-secretary level, is an obvious play for premier position. In this, its strategy is helped by the very crises that have seized other countries, notably Syria, where Turkey has augmented its importance by the role it has played in helping to consolidate the opposition to the Assad regime.
Against this background, Turkey’s firm rejection of EU criticisms on issues such as treatment of minorities (though Turkey did eventually respond to criticisms from the West of alleged deliberate neglect of Kurdish earthquake victims) and freedom of expression is of significance. Turkey bans more websites than any European country, but when such freedom-of-expression issues are pointed out, Ankara’s response has been to hit back at the EU and the West with allegations of everything from hypocrisy to racism. It is the same strategy employed, for instance, in responding with indignation and boycott politics to France’s approval of the Armenian genocide bill.
Whatever criticisms directed at it and however valid they may be, Turkey progressed in 2011 ever further on the path to regional power – even as it appeared to take no real cognisance of whatever the EU had to offer.
In the Western Balkans, various countries achieved various forms of political progress in 2011; unlike in other years, no one seemed to go backwards, even if some appeared to run on the spot.
Given the overwhelmingly nationalistic tone of its politics, it is an open question whether Macedonia’s political leaders had a sense of schadenfreude at the plight of Greece. Hardly in Skopje’s best interests, though: Greece is the biggest investor in Macedonia, but that hardy annual, the name dispute, continued to stand in the way of all.
Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski’s government triumphed in snap elections in June in what was hardly a surprise development; well aware of its domestic strength, the Gruevski administration conducted its local and foreign policies in uncompromising style.
True, Sofia and Skopje did sign a memorandum on Macedonia’s EU integration; true, in October the European Commission said in a recommendation that Macedonia was ready to start EU negotiations; but the way in which Skopje set about celebrating the 20th anniversary of the former Yugoslav republic’s independence (the enormous statue of Alexander the Great is of reference here) hardly would make it easy to persuade anyone of Macedonia’s unflinching commitment to good-neighbourly relations.
True, Macedonia largely triumphed in its International Court of Justice case against Greece over the previous blocking of an invitation being issued to Macedonia to join Nato, but the very triumphalism of the statements from Skopje afterwards again were hardly persuasive of a mature and reasonable approach to resolving regional issues. For yet another year, every statement – from the UN, EU, Nato, among others – for a resolution to the Macedonia name dispute seemed to have about it a certain weariness, the tone of a parent addressing an infant who just won’t stop its public tantrums.
Serbia now has handed Ratko Mladić and Goran Hadzic to The Hague; October saw the European Commission recommend that Serbia become an EU candidate country, but added that readiness would come only after gaps in the legal framework and business environment were addressed.
But for Serbia, positive developments through the year were accompanied by reverses.
From the EU and others, there was a welcome when dialogue began between Belgrade and Priština, but this process was to break down amid clashes over border checkpoints, which led not only to one death but also to an escalation of tensions just when there was some optimism about the process of reduction of the deployment of Kfor peacekeepers.
Kosovo had its own problems, from the allegations against prime minister Hashim Thaçi of previous involvement in organ trafficking (he denies the allegations) to the turbulence of the formation of a new government in February to the election of Behgjet Pacolli as president being ruled unconstitutional and his replacement by Atifete Jahjaga.
In January, the European Parliament approved the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Serbia but by December, German chancellor German Merkel was saying that Serbia was not ready for EU membership.
Paths and guides
In October, it was announced that Bulgaria, Greece and Romania had proposed an EU Strategy for the Western Balkans intended to accelerate the expansion process.
The foreign ministers of three countries sent a letter to Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle and European Regional Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn, setting out the main objectives of the strategy.
These main objectives were the fulfilment of the membership criteria, including the Copenhagen political criteria; enabling more European projects in the region, including in the new EU Cohesion Policy; and cross-border co-operation in the construction of infrastructure, energy and the fight against organised crime.
The strategy also provides for better management of available EU funds, which may be of greater benefit to the people of the region, a statement by the Foreign Ministry in Sofia said.
"Our commitment to the European prospects of the Western Balkans is based on the conviction that only in this way will we assist reforms in our neighbouring countries and in the same way good neighbourly relations in the region," Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov said.
In November, Mladenov told a conference in Priština that the Balkans were not a priority for the European Union at the moment and for this reason they have to start to produce good news.
You have to realise that amid a financial crisis, it is difficult for the EU to think about foreign policy, Mladenov said, according to a Foreign Ministry statement.
He said the integration process in Western Balkans faced two dangers.
One is in the relationship between Kosovo and the EU, which has led to the fact that it remains the only spot on the map of the Balkans whose place in the integration process remains unclear.
Another danger is a fatigue in the Balkans about expansion, where the euphoria among young people is giving way to nationalism and xenophobia.
"However, we look forward to the moment when Kosovo and Serbia become part of the EU, which is very important for the development of the region," Mladenov said.
On December 9, Croatia signed its accession treaty with the European Union and if all goes according to plan, will join the bloc in July 2013.
European Commission President Jose Barroso said that Croatia was the best proof of how strong and successful the transformative power of the EU’s enlargement policy can be.
"Today, we therefore also send a clear signal to Croatia's neighbours: A signal that our European offer is on the table; that hard work pays off; that the benefits of European integration are within reach if our partners stay the course," Barroso said.
But by the end of 2011, that course looked like a long and winding road, and it was questionable in some cases how keen certain leaders were to follow the signposts.