Prague's Europeum examines future of Western Balkans with independent Montenegro

Photo: CTK

The Balkan state of Montenegro this week voted for independence from Serbia. Supporters of the break are optimistic that their new nation will eventually join other former communist states like the Czech Republic in the European Union. But at a conference this Tuesday in Prague, experts discussed how now is probably the wrong time for Montenegro or any other nation to join the long line waiting for EU membership.

In 10 out of the 15 "old" or pre-2004 members, a majority of people oppose expanding the union any further. The ten newer members, or EU-10, which includes the Czech Republic, are more positive - 69 percent of people there are pro-enlargement. The Prague-based think tank Europeum held a discussion on the future of Montenegro and the Western Balkans in general. Director David Kral says these are the most important prospective members for Czechs because of longtime ties with the Southern Slavs.

"The Czech Republic is acting as an EU member, so I think its main role is to push for the Western Balkan case. There is not much appetite in the current European Union for enlargement in general. I think the Czech position is that we have to give the Western Balkans a credible perspective of EU membership."

Mr. Kral says Montenegro and others need this goal to spur reform. However, with failed constitutional referendums in France and the Netherlands, some speculate that the EU is already overstretched and should not expand. Franz-Lothar Altmann studies EU policy in Berlin and says that only the prospect of EU membership can stabilize Europe's most volatile corner. He adds that the small Balkan countries could be more easily integrated than others.

Photo: CTK
"The Western Balkan countries, when compared to the EU, have only 4 percent of the population of the existing EU - it's really not much. It's another case, for example with Turkey or even the Ukraine. These are big countries and their overstretching of the EU is much more in discussion than with these small countries."

These states have already had some help. Austria helped launch negotiations on Croatia's membership amid controversy, while Slovakia has offered frequent advice to Serbia. Mr. Kral expects the EU 10 to offer more assistance to Montenegro and its neighbors.

"I think there is sort of a regional alliance emerging between the Czech Republic and some other countries in Central Europe that are very strongly determined to push for the Western Balkan case."

Photo: CTK
Even with this backing, the Balkans still have a long road ahead, says Tija Memisevic of the European Research Centre in Sarajevo. She doesn't think this week's separation will help anyone's progress, and with the exception of Croatia, she doesn't expect any other former Yugoslav state to follow Slovenia into the EU anytime soon. The Western Balkans, she says, will have a longer path to membership than Czech Republic and other former Soviet bloc countries did after they gained independence.

"It took 15 years for many of these countries to join the European Union. Considering the state that many of the Balkan countries are in now - I mean Bosnia has a legacy of war so basically we had to start from zero compared to the Czech Republic or Slovakia. So I think that to these 15 years we can add another 10. Between 2015 and 2020 is realistic."