99 years ago today, on June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Austrian-controlled Bosnia and Herzegovina by a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. The killing in Sarajevo didn't really start the war in the Balkans, which had been going on for some years as Ottoman control over its over-extended empire collapsed, but it managed to spark a much larger fight across Europe and gave birth to the "short 20th Century." After that ended in 1989-1991, Yugoslavia collapsed for the second time into five and then six and seven countries, hundreds of thousands of people died, and towns were ethnically cleansed before NATO operations brought a tenuous peace. Since then, the countries of the Western Balkans have watched as their neighbors to the north, including former Yugoslav Slovenia, joined the European Union, with all the economic advantages it brings, in 2004, followed by Romania and Bulgaria in 2007.
A few years ago, some optimists in Serbia were hoping to join the EU on the centenary of the assassination. That won't happen, but on Monday, Croatia will become the Union's 28th member in the first enlargement since 2007, before I started my serious study of European political affairs. Enlargement has been Brussels' most effective foreign policy and the accession process is hugely helpful for the European countries still outside the Union. But the policy has looked moribund for a few years, between well-known blockages of candidates Turkey and Macedonia, the EU's extremely serious problems, and the lack of progress on reforms across the region. Today, things are looking up. The EU has just agreed to open accession talks with Serbia, a candidate country since 2011-12, in December or January. It will finally open talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Kosovo, a first step. Even more significantly (since those decisions were based on prior progress) Albania just had a breakthrough election with a peaceful transfer of power to former Tirana mayor Edi Rama and his Socialist Party, a needed solidification of Tirana's democratic credentials which should lead to candidate status.
Croatia will be the last new member for several years, but it must not be the last. During the break-up of Yugoslavia, newly reunified Germany made its first bold unilateral and slightly alarming foreign policy move in recognizing the Western Christian breakaway republics, Slovenia and Croatia, ahead of the rest of the EU and international community. The EU has four Orthodox countries as members, but its signalling about who can belong to Europe has often been daft, for example when it granted visa free travel to everyone in the Balkans except Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo, the three countries with Muslim pluralities. Turkey has been granted candidate status and indeed Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus are granted at least potential candidacy by the Treaty of Rome, which states "Any European State may apply to become a member of the Community." Particularly in a multi-speed European Union, which appears to be destined by developments in the euro crisis response and the Europhobia of the British public, there should be room for any geographically European country which meets the political and economic accession criteria. A revival of the accession process for Turkey is the most effective way outsiders can check the autocratic tendencies of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and support the aspirations of Turks for a democracy that goes deeper than elections. An accession prospect for Ukraine is the only way in the long term to keep Kyiv from slipping into the Eurasian Union which Vladimir Putin is constructing.
Meanwhile in the Western Balkans, tiny Montenegro should lead the pack and Albania is also a relatively straightforward case, both simply need to follow the path to readiness that Croatia took, toughened after many thought Bulgaria and Romania were let in too early. Albania is already a member of NATO (which for the moment also has 28 member states, 22 in common with the EU), which has traditionally come first, Montenegro is likeliest to become NATO's 29th member. Macedonia has been stuck at the starting gate since 2005 over its stupid name dispute with Greece, and it has become more of a basket case, bingeing on the construction of monuments summoning a glorious past rather than reforming for a future in the EU; the name problem must be solved for the country to have a future that is anything but dim. Bosnia and Herzegovina has serious constitutional problems and must transform politically into a more unified state at some point, hopefully peacefully; it will not get into the EU with the present state of affairs. Serbia is the most attractive member in the Western Balkans after Croatia for the EU because of its size and transport opportunities along the Danube Valley and it is also in many ways the most ready in terms of reform; it is also the most repulsive because of its crimes in the 1990s, the persistence of an ugly nationalism, and the Kosovo problem, which has not yet been solved despite progress. Kosovo itself, hobbled by a limbo status of recognition by only half the world, is years behind Serbia in readiness, but they should only join the EU together, with Belgrade along with Madrid, Athens, Bucharest, Bratislava and Nicosia recognizing the full sovereignty of Prishtina. The Germans, thankfully, seem to understand this and they also seem to be leading Brussels' Balkan policy and doing it more responsibly these days. When all six countries have joined the EU, it will be a great accomplishment for the peoples of the region and for Europe as a whole. Until then, congratulations to Croatia.
Oh, and out in the north Atlantic, candidate country Iceland isn't going to join. The euro looks less attractive to them these days and Beijing, interested in increasing its footholds in the Arctic, is waving too much money around.