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Articles and Briefings

Joining the club

By Adam Hug. Source: BN (Business Network) Magazine

(First published in BN Magazine http://www.bnmagazine.co.uk )

Joining the EU can be a tricky business, even if you are not a large and Islamic country straddling the continent's old geographic divide. Brussels is at serious risk of getting mud on the red carpet it rolled out to welcome Iceland, the once fiercely independent banking black hole, into the club, as President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson jeopardized the country's repayment deal with the UK and Netherlands over the collapse of the Icesave bank by putting it to a public vote in February. With the public less fearful of total economic collapse, the need to appease European member states seems less pressing, with polls showing that voters are likely to reject the deal and are not currently sold on joining the EU, if even if they are happy for negotiations to proceed.

In the slightly warmer climes of the Balkans the two pillars of the former Yugoslavia, Serbia and Croatia, are making their own unsteady paths towards EU membership. Just before Christmas Serbia's pro-European President Boris Tadic formally requested membership, that once signed off by the council will give the green light for the accession process to rumble into action. Alongside the usual requirements for regulatory convergence to meet Serbia has to make progress on two major outstanding issues before it can join the club. Belgrade is still, somewhat unenthusiastically, hunting for two war criminals the former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic, former President of the civil war era Republic of Serbian Krajina. Furthermore it has still to reconcile itself to Kosovo's independence, with Tadic reiterating Belgrade's position that the country remains an integral part of his nation while celebrating Orthodox Christmas in a church in an area of Western Kosovo dominated by the Serb minority. Nevertheless Belgrade now seems to be in an informal race with Ankara to see which of these challenging but critically important accessions can be completed first. Plainer sailing can now be expected for its northern neighbour Croatia after Slovenia lifted objections last year relating to a still on-going border dispute over the Bay of Piran.

Back in Brussels, as work is underway putting together the new Commission and readjusting the institutional architecture following the creation of Cathy Ashton's new position of High Rep, Barosso's new Commission has put together the responsibilities for the neighbourhood away from the Baroness and into the remit of Enlargement Commissioner designate Stefan Füle. As an enthusiastic supporter of both enlargement and greater engagement with the neighbourhood I should welcome this initiative with open arms. Yet it runs the risk of creating new divided loyalties and responsibilities, with staff taking direction from Füle, yet likely to be part of the future European Action Service run by Ashton, when the whole process was supposed to reduce institutional clutter and overlap. Furthermore while there is considerable merit in strengthening neighbourhood policy to a point where participation in the longer term can act as either a staging ground for, or indeed an alternative to, membership for countries whose membership aspirations remain a distant dream such Ukraine and Georgia, it creates a risk. If not managed carefully, creating a direct continuum between neighbourhood and enlargement policy runs the risk of creating a dumping ground where Turkey's membership aspirations could yet be parked.