Exactly 20 years ago, on 9 December 1991, EU leaders at the Maastricht Summit made two historical decisions: to start introducing the Euro and to recognise the ex-Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Slovenia. On this same day, 20 years later, on 9 December 2011, the EU will have to deal with the same two topics: the Euro and the Balkans (Serbia’s candidature).
The 1991 Maastricht Summit started with 11 members opposing Germany’s proposal for early recognition of Croatia and Slovenia. The summit finished in the early morning with all 12 members endorsing Germany’s proposal. During a long night of horse-trading, France, the main opponent of early recognition of the ex-YU republics, negotiated compensation on Euro-monetary matters and decided to withdraw its opposition to the German proposal. Other EU members followed.
Faced with Milosevic’s attack from inside, and no EU support, Ante Markovic – the last hope for a peaceful transition for Yugoslavia – resigned on 20 December 1991.
What happened after December 1991 is a well-known and very painful history with a hundred thousand dead, a million refugees, a destroyed economy, and the implosion of the value system and the respect for human dignity in the Balkans. The whole region, with the exception of Slovenia, was like a time machine going back in history.
Twenty years later, the Balkan countries are exhausted. Fortunately, today, there are not as many armaments in the region as there were in 1991. Moreover, although destructive sentiments are still present, there is no adrenaline for new fights. Somehow, people just want to drop anchor in a quiet harbour, especially in anticipation of the coming global economic thunderstorm.
Croatia will become an EU member state in 2013. Tomorrow (9 December 2011) the EU summit will discuss the Serbian candidature to the EU. Serbian, often masochistic diplomacy, has done a lot, especially on the rhetorical level, to make its own candidature difficult. On the substantive level however, Serbia delivered on the most important aspect for Europe: sending all war criminals to the Hague.
All in all, Serbia is ready to become a candidate (still a long way to membership, a process which may last years, as in the case of Turkey). Since there are many checkpoints on this long journey for EU-membership, the strong German opposition to Serbian candidacy in this early phase is puzzling. Let us speculate about possible reason.
The first reason could indicate Germany’s intention to signal its strong focus on upholding law and order in the EU. This already started with the Greek financial crisis. While Serbia is not a shining example of a legal state, it is not so very different from other Balkan states, including some EU member states. Moreover, Serbia will have time to fix its legal and juridical system on the long journey to EU membership.
The second reason, which is more realistic, is that Germany is playing for its domestic public, which is tired of EU enlargement. Still, this argument is not particularly strong, since other countries, such as France and Austria have even more enlargement-sceptical populations, but they support the Serbian candidature.
The third reason, which could be the most dangerous, is the punishment of Serbia for what it did in the Balkans in the 1990’s. Hopefully this is not the case, especially for Germany, which was on the receiving side of a senseless punishment policy after World War I. The international punishment of Germany brought about the end of the Weimar republic and the emergence of Hitler.
The fourth reason for Germany’s opposition could be Ms. Merkel’s personal uneasiness with Serbian politicians, who are well known for breaking their promises. Her body language showed this uneasiness during her last visit to Belgrade.
Whatever the reason for Germany’s policy, we have learned from the last 20 years that the Balkans can produce more history than it can consume. Today, the Balkans is ready to ‘import’ a new history in the form of core values and the rules of European integration, one of the most fascinating political projects in modern times. The Balkans are keen to do this, even now, when the grand EU project is in its deepest crisis. This opportunity should not be wasted.