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The flight from Belgrade to Brussels is short and sweet, taking barely two hours. But Serbia and other western Balkan states face a long and frustrating wait before they become members of the European Union.

Serbs say they aren’t too worried. They already are part of the “European family” and will be EU members before too long, fulfilling a long-held ambition of joining the European mainstream. But at the impressive Belgrade Security Forum that I attended last week, the mood of the participants — Serbs and others from neighbouring ex-Yugoslav nations — is palpably sombre.

The incoming president of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, has just said he does not plan to accept any new members of the EU for another five years. Forum attendees say they weren’t really expecting to join the EU very soon. But Juncker’s decision to stress the point is making every one uneasy and very uncomfortable.

The prospect of the Balkans enlargement morphing into a “Turkey scenario” is on people’s mind. Ankara has been negotiating with the EU for almost a decade. Progress is insultingly slow. Talks open, then stall, then come to a halt.
There’s no final date for EU entry. Meanwhile, Turkey is looking to play a more proactive role in its troubled neighbourhood than in Europe.

Optimistic participants at the Belgrade Forum say they will use the next five years to continue negotiations, ironing out difficulties in all the multiple “chapters” that are under discussion. “We will be ready to join in five years and one day,” one speaker underlines, referring to Juncker’s timeline. “That should be our ambition and our goal.”

But others are more realistic. The EU is sending them a strong political message of disinterest and “enlargement fatigue”. Juncker’s new team does not even include a top official solely in charge of expansion. Instead the new commissioner, an Austrian, will be responsible for the EU’s discredited “neighbourhood policy” which deals with ex-Soviet states as well as “enlargement negotiations”. Most see this as a policy downgrade.

A former ambassador from the Czech Republic whose country joined the EU in the so-called “Big Bang” enlargement in 2004 which saw the entry of eight former communist states of Central and Eastern Europe as well as Malta and Cyprus, says Balkan states should not worry because membership of the EU is always a painstaking, nit-picking, technocratic exercise. Stay patient, he advises.

A colleague from Croatia, which joined the EU in 2011, says Serbia and others won’t be inside the EU for at least another 10 years. “And that’s the optimistic scenario,” he says wryly.

No one wonder that Twitter messages during the Belgrade conference warn that “Europe has lost its magic in the Balkans.” Could it be, asks another message, that all the western Balkan states could join in one go in 2020? Another advises the would-be members to lie low. With European public opinion in anti-expansion mood, it’s “better to slip in silently rather than with fireworks exploding”.

It wasn’t supposed to be so complicated. After all bringing in eastern nations is an essential part of the “European project” of peace and prosperity for all neighbours. Enlargement is viewed as the best and most successful example of European “soft power”, that much-touted ability to prompt change and transformation through trade, aid and reform.

But times have changed. The Eurozone crisis and the ensuing economic slowdown have made the EU wary of spending on non-EU members and of taking on more financial responsibilities. The rise of the Far Right parties across Europe is an indication that “foreigners”, even those who are European, are no longer welcome.

And the western Balkans have their share of economic, political, social and ethnic problems to solve. The region was gripped by devastating ethnic wars in the 1990s. Neighbour killed neighbour while the EU looked on helplessly. There were allegations of war crimes, Nato air strikes against Serbian targets and finally the signature of peace agreements, including the Dayton accords in 1995 which ended the war in Bosnia. The war in Kosovo ended in 1999 with the Nato bombing of Serbia.

In fact, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is currently being tried at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague for the July 1995 murder of thousands of Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica.

The region has moved on since then but scars remain and relations among neighbours can still be strained. Also, organised crime and corruption are rife. Many economies are faltering and foreign investments are modest. However, Italy’s Fiat has just started producing cars at its new manufacturing plant in Serbia and Chinese investors are scouring around for business opportunities. There is hope for the future.

And then there’s the question of relations with Russia. Serbian colleagues tell me they feel under pressure to choose between Moscow and Brussels, pointing to a dilemma which Ukraine also faced before Russia’s invasion of Crimea earlier this year.

The Forum panel I take part in seeks bravely to seek common ground between the western transatlantic agenda and Russia’s competing Eurasian vision. Panellists say there is no second Cold War in the making but admit relations between Russia and the West have hit rock bottom under the very assertive President Vladimir Putin. Balkan countries don’t want to choose but say that staying “neutral” is becoming more and more difficult.

As I leave Belgrade it is clear that despite Russia’s siren song, Serbs and other Balkan nationals firmly believe that they belong to the EU. “What’s your destination?” the very kind hotel receptionist asks me as I check out. “Brussels,” I tell him. “Just like for Serbia,” he says.

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