Sunday, March 12, 2006

Failure in Salzburg

The Salzburg meeting on the Balkans policy of the European Union resulted in a less than brilliant and certainly not very forward-looking compromise.

It was a rather short communique, the most significant part of which was this:

"In this respect, the EU confirms that the future of the Western Balkans lies in the European Union. The EU recalled that a debate on the enlargement strategy is due in 2006 as set out by the Council conclusions of 12 December 2005. The EU also notes that its absorption capacity has to be taken into account."

Although I note that the Austrian presidency is trying to spin it more positively, noting that the word "membership" wasn't totally banned, this text is still a more of a victory for the blocking forces inside the Union.

Previous commitments are repeated in the vaguest possible form. Then one refers to something the French invented in order to block further debate for the time being. And then one adds the catch-phrase of "the absorption capacity" to it all, meaning that this all could be too much for us.

This phrase is particularly worrisome. Although it's been around for a long time, it has resurfaced in the debate about Turkey, being repeated time after time primarily by some Germans and the Austrians.

But while the issue might be a real one with Turkey, it has never been one before with the Western Balkans. We have now seen the introduction of a new possible blocking element in the deliberations - and in the official texts.

And if one had hoped that there would be the readiness to go forward with other steps, there isn't much of that in the communique.

A support for consolidating the patchwork of bilateral free trade agreements in the region into a multilateral one is good, but will not make much of a difference and falls far short of what really could have been done.

On the important issue of reducing the impact of the high visa barriers that have gone up across the region, and between it and the European Union, there is only a non-committal reference to coming proposals.

One would have thought that the death of Milosevic should have concentrated the minds of the ministers on the need for a more forward-looking policy.

It did not. A failure.

Much of this is blamed by individual ministers on the problem of getting their respective electorates to accept further enlargement or other steps that take the Union forward.

This would have been a more respectable point of view if there had been any signs of them really trying. But there isn't. They are declaring defeat before even attempting to achieve something.

It's not the lack of support that is the problem - it's the lack of political will, courage and leadership.