Regime Change, EU Style

A euro sign sculpture stands outside the European Central Bank (ECB) headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany, on Tuesday, April 30
A euro sign sculpture stands outside the European Central Bank (ECB) headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany, on Tuesday, April 30, 2013. The ECB will cut its main refinancing rate 25 basis points to a record 0.5 percent on May 2, the median estimate from a Bloomberg survey of 66 economists shows, after gauges of business activity for April underscored weakness in the euro region. Photographer: Ralph Orlowski/Bloomberg via Getty Images

We are in the midst of several deeply challenging years for the European Union. The eurozone crisis in particular raises profound political, economic and institutional issues and forces into the open basic questions about European solidarity and shared responsibility. In contrast to the gloom that sometimes settles around these challenges, it is important to note two big forward steps -- in the Western Balkans -- in a decades-long, profoundly positive process of peaceful settlement and democratic reform propelled by the prospect of membership in "Europe."

The most prominent big step is the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, announced in Brussels on April 19, regarding North Kosovo (mainly populated by ethnic Serbs). Although it remains to be seen how long it will take until this agreement is fully implemented, the Kosovo accord is a major success for which EU conditionality and EU diplomacy were vital. EU membership negotiations with Serbia can now begin, as will negotiations for an EU Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Kosovo. In an April 22 editorial, the Financial Times called the agreement "a turning point for the Balkans... The accord makes clear that the eurozone crisis has not dimmed the EU's allure. Without the promise of getting on the road to membership, Serbia would never have engaged."

Another big step -- less prominent on American radar screens -- is the imminent EU membership of Croatia, another country that emerged from the violent breakup of the old Yugoslavia in the 1990s, which applied for EU membership in 2003. On March 26, 2013, the last "monitoring report" on Croatia was issued in Brussels by the European Commission, concluding that "Croatia is generally meeting the commitments and requirements arising from the accession negotiations, in all chapters." The Commission considers Croatia ready for EU membership on July 1, 2013. On April 14, Croatian voters elected -- though with a disappointingly low turnout -- the country's twelve members of the European Parliament, the only directly elected EU institution. All existing EU members must ratify Croatia's accession treaty. The most complicated case was resolved on April 2 when Slovenia (the first ex-Yugoslav country to join the EU) ratified the treaty, after settlement of certain bilateral issues between Croatia and its northern neighbor. As of this writing only Germany has not yet ratified Croatia's accession treaty, but its lower house, the Bundestag, is scheduled to do so today, May 16.

Most Americans have little idea how politically meaningful, how wide-ranging and rigorous the process is by which Croatia will soon become an EU member. The acquis communautaire, the EU laws and regulations that govern each member state, has grown to about 144,000 pages. Some of these involve small details without much political significance, but others reach deeply into governance and political culture. In the case of Croatia, the accession negotiations devoted special attention to the "judiciary and fundamental rights." Due to EU conditionality, and despite some remaining weaknesses, there has been significant progress in reforming the Croatian judiciary since 2003. The courts have issued several corruption convictions against high-level politicians, including former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, who in 2012 was sentenced to ten years in prison. Since the death of former President and autocratic leader Franjo Tuđman in 1999, there has been an impressive change in the political culture of the country. In a recent seminar at the Center for Transatlantic Relations of Johns Hopkins University, the change in Croatia's political culture was described as a strengthened "culture of compromise," a characteristic still painfully absent in Croatia's neighbor Bosnia and Herzegovina. Croatia becoming the EU's 28th member will be the latest in a long historical process of enlargement of democratic "Europe." Think of the eventual incorporation of ten former Communist countries in the years after the end of the Cold War. Think of the incorporation of Portugal, Spain, and Greece growing out of an earlier "Europe"-inspired round of regime change.

Yes, shortcomings and limitations must also be noted. Democratic governance in Hungary, which joined in 2004, is backsliding, highlighting the need to monitor the working of institutions in member countries. Romania and Bulgaria, which became EU members in 2007, may have been admitted prematurely, taking away some of the EU's leverage to support reform in these two countries.

Nevertheless, the transformations that the prospect of EU membership has undergirded over the decades represent a great historical accomplishment -- the most successful "democracy promotion" program in the world in the last fifty years. Hopefully Croatia's transformation and successful entry into the EU will encourage its Western Balkans neighbors along similar pathways.