Two Western Balkan countries are with blocked European perspectives. Those are Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia. The former, due to internal problems stemming from the complex structure of the state established with the Dayton peace accord, and the latter, due to Greece's veto imposed because of the still unresolved dispute over the name of the state of Macedonia officially recognised as Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). The blockade of their European integration has practically led to deepening of the two countries' problems and to their (self)isolation. Euroscepticism is growing and Europe is ever less being perceived as a solution to their problems. The difference, however, is that Bosnia and Herzegovina has a strong ally in the face of Croatia.
The Croatian diplomacy has been tireless in the past months in seeking support for its innovative idea BiH to become a special case in the European integration process, as euinside wrote recently, ever since the mass protests erupted in Bosnia and Herzegovina which immediately called the memory of the horror of the 1992-1995 war. And although this idea does not meet a lot of support yet, because of fears that it actually represents a lowering of the accession criteria, Zagreb does not give up and has set a top priority to ensure the success of the eurointegration of the Western Balkan countries and in particular Bosnia and Herzegovina with which Croatia shares a long border, which is actually external border of the EU.
Who will be Croatia to Macedonia?
However, the former Yugoslav republic does not have such a strong arm neither among its former yugo comrades nor among the rest of the Balkan nations. And even less it has the support of its closest neighbour in terms of mentality, language and origin - Bulgaria. The relations between the two countries are variable but they can most accurately be described as passive against the backdrop of the constantly smouldering hostility and lack of trust. From time to time, with every change on the top of the Bulgarian diplomacy, briefly, the policy toward Macedonia gets activated but it depletes with a series of meetings, verbal commitments of support for the European integration of Macedonia, promises for agreements. But nothing of this has any practical value for overcoming the European blockade in Skopje which is to a large extent due to internal political problems. Bulgaria has even joined the efforts to block Macedonia's European perspective by putting forward preconditions of its own (respect for history and efforts to reduce nationalism) and even claimed this as a victory at European level.
Croatia has an advantage to Bulgaria, firstly because it went through a much narrower European integration sifter (because of Bulgaria as a matter of fact) and, second, because this was successful. In other words, Croatia's voice weighs incomparably more than Bulgaria's when it comes to assistance for candidate countries. Let us not forget the language advantage which made very successful the excellence centre through which Croatia distributes translated documents, expertise and harmonised legislation to the countries in the region. Besides, although complicated, the relations between Bosnia and Croatia are traditionally good because of their common past in the framework of former Yugoslavia and also because of the significant Croatian population which defines itself as Croatian in BiH. And last but not least, it is of great importance to Croatia its neighbours to be stable. These efforts of the country enjoy great approval in the EU.
Therefore, we should ask ourselves how important is Macedonia to Bulgaria and should something endangering the stability of the region happen so that an initiative is undertaken to restart the Macedonian process of European integration?
Solomon Passy, a former minister of foreign affairs of Bulgaria (2001-2005) and currently founder and president of the Atlantic Club in Bulgaria, believes that relations between each couple of Balkan neighbours are unique and non-comparable. The relations between Greece and Cyprus, for instance are incomparable, with Turkey, Macedonia or Albania. How can we compare relations between Bulgaria and Greece, Turkey, Macedonia or Croatia's with Slovenia and Bulgaria, he asks rhetorically in an opinion written for exclusively for euinside. Mr Passy recalled the Bulgarian initiatives for the Balkans - the opening of the Process of Cooperation in South-East Europe (1996) for all Balkan countries; the establishment of bilateral and trilateral cooperation formats like Greece's and Turkey's assistance for Bulgaria's and Romania's accession in NATO, the trans border cooperation between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, between Bulgaria, Macedonia and Serbia, and Bulgaria-Serbia-Romania.
One of the things Bulgaria is very proud of and believes it represents huge support is the fact that it was the first country to recognise Macedonia's independence, especially under its constitutional name which is challenged by Greece. You will often hear from Sofia that Bulgaria does support Macedonia's membership in NATO and EU. But nothing more than that.
Solomon Passy recognises that the Balkans need a high-grade brand new type of cooperation similar to that in the Visegrad group. "The latest developments in Ukraine show that, on the one hand, the time for protracting the Balkan project has expired. But on the other hand - and this is critically important to all of us - separating the European from the Atlantic integration is counterproductive as the Ukrainian sad example teaches us", the former foreign minister underscores. Recently, he published a new idea together with former deputy foreign minister Lyubomir Kyuchukov about the establishment of a Balkan Visegrad (this is the working title). It should be open to all countries from south-east Europe, Mr Passy writes, which are members both of NATO and EU. For now, these countries are 5: Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Slovenia and Croatia. "This Balkan Visegrad will not be obsessed with lobbying for membership into the EU or NATO - these tasks have already been resolved for them. It will be a tool for synergy between its members for maximising the effect of their common membership in NATO and EU. the parameters of such synergy are unlimited. They start from infrastructure, EU funds, trans border cooperation and come to military cooperation which is to be set as an element both to the future EU common defence and to NATO's smart defence".
It is still not clear what are the attitudes in the region about the establishment of a Balkan Visegrad, but it is actually aimed at members not at candidates. And currently, a solution is sought to the deeply stuck European integration. And now, precisely ten years after the big bang enlargement of the Union the topic is more than timely. Furthermore, taking into account that in many European countries the public opinion is at least reserved to further enlargement and in the candidate or aspiring countries there is no remarkable enthusiasm, too. Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative (a think-tank with expertise on Balkan issues) is of the opinion that a radical change is needed in the enlargement policy, including with a change of wording and with putting very simple and realistic pre-conditions.
As a good example in this regard he quoted the road maps for the visa liberation for the Western Balkan countries. Road maps should be drawn also for the opening and closing of chapters because, he said, the opening of a chapter in itself is not progress. The problem is, according to Dr Senada Selo Sabic from the Institute for Development of International Relations in Zagreb, that Croatia was the last country with national consensus on accession. There is no such consensus in neither of the countries that remained outside. She also believes that it is no longer possible to work with the elites in those countries and work should begin on cultivating domestic pro-European forces which, she admitted, will be a long and difficult process. Both with Gerald Knaus spoke at a discussion about enlargement in Zagreb organised by the embassy of Sweden and the European Commission representation in the Croatian capital.
For now, the trend is to await the formation of the new European Commission and to see whether it will come up with a different strategy about enlargement or not. The moods in the member states, however, are that the ball is in the hands of the candidates. The Croatian diplomacy believes, though, that it is very difficult to expect more from weak states, especially Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Vesna Pusic's deputy Zeljko Kupresak is convinced that more Europe is the solution for the region, not less. The EU should not leave these countries behind. He tried many times to defend the Croatian idea about BiH which, however, is perceived as lowering the bar. While arguing what is first - the egg or the hen or if the candidates should do their homework first and only then the EU should open the doors - these countries are failing and this creates risks for the security of the region.
Bulgaria can and should play Croatia's role for Macedonia because this could be a way for the country to help itself get out of the negative image it has not only in the EU but in the region, too. One of the few pluses Bulgaria has is its fiscal discipline and low indebtedness. This is something it can "export" as expertise. This week in Croatia, on an official visit, was Bulgarian Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski. From the statements of Croatian officials it became clear that Zagreb admires Sofia precisely because of the low budget deficit and government debt. This is one of the few pluses the country can take advantage of. While a solution is sought to the dispute with Greece, Bulgaria could propose regional talks for membership. For instance, Croatia, Macedonia and Bulgaria could sit at a table and demonstrate how the accession negotiations take place, what are the techniques, what administrative effort does it require and how to ensure it. What comes after membership, too. This would prepare the country much better and could again kindle the European enthusiasm. After all, Bulgaria and Macedonia have very similar languages.
Croatia is focusing in its proposal for BiH on involving the civil society in restarting the eurointegration process. The same can be done with Macedonia, too. It is important the country to realise that it has allies and a future, because, otherwise, it is turning into a small evil formation whose only purpose is to survive in a hostile environment. At the discussion about enlargement in Zagreb someone very rightfully put the question "Imagine where will Macedonia be when the Greek veto falls". Croatia is aware that its proposal needs time to gain the necessary support, but to the country it is important to keep the issue on the Union's agenda. This can and should be done by Bulgaria for Macedonia as well. The regular reactions against this or that action by Skopje, especially by the Bulgarian delegation in the European Parliament, is petty and narrow-minded.