Accepted as a candidate for EU membership on March 1, Serbia is a key regional player in the Western Balkans, according to Dimitar Bechev, senior policy fellow and head of the European Council on Foreign Relations' Sofia office. “Though Serbia is economically not weighty," Bechev said, "the Balkans is the principal test for EU’s foreign policy, and actually one of the few places where the latter works, the present turmoil within the EU notwithstanding.”
Olaf Boehnke, head of the council's Berlin office, said Serbia could be a role model for its neighbors who have bigger challenges—Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania—if it turns out to be a successful candidate.
Boehnke said the EU’s consideration for accepting Serbia’s membership contributes to its general mission to maintain regional security, stability and prosperity on a continent characterized by centuries of internal turmoil.
"The EU has committed to enlarging to the Western Balkans as far back as 2003," Boehnke said. "Serbia meets sufficiently the institutional criteria, and has taken steps to address bitter legacies of the 1990s wars—high profile extraditions to ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) and regional cooperation, including rapprochement with an erstwhile adversary, Croatia."
“Given the fact that the war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s was the worst backlash in European history since the end of WWII," Boehnke continued, "there is a natural desire for Europe to fix this hotspot for good. The second heart chamber of the Western Balkans is Serbia. The integration of Serbia into the EU might be in different terms as important as the integration of Germany into the core of the European Community in the early 1950s.”
Both experts say EU membership will benefit Serbia in terms of trade, economy, democracy and governance capacity. But Boehnke said Kovoso will be a heavy burden for Serbia. “Only if the Serbian government as well as the Serbian people manages to accept that the independence of Kosovo is final," will the republic be able to join the EU, he said.
And though some member countries may be struggling to survive economic crisis, Bechev said he thought it was a good move for the EU to continue its expansion efforts. But, as Boehnke pointed out, “The individual enlargement procedure has never been a story of quick success.” Turkey, for example, started its negotiation with EU in 1999. Croatia is slated for accession in July 2013; the country submitted its application in 2003 and was recommended by the European Commission in 2004.
Boehnke said the EU would benefit from speeding up this process. The financial crisis of some member states and the threat of destabilization for the entire union might serve as incentive to become more efficient in making new membership rulings. Otherwise candidate states have to settle their own financial problems before joining EU, but legal contruction like the fiscal compact will raise the bar significantly for countries pursuing membership. But, Boehnke said, "an increase in security, stability, and prosperity of the entire European continent is a reasonable counter value."