Enlargement stalemate angers Western Balkans

Enlargement stalemate angers Western Balkans

On the sidelines of triumphant rhetoric over the imminent granting of EU candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, European leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday (June 23rd) faced furious Western Balkan counterparts, frustrated by lack of their own progress on the road to the EU.

The leaders of the six Balkan countries — Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia — hailed Ukraine’s expected progress, but expressed deep disappointment that their own negotiations have not started or are still at a standstill, almost twenty years after receiving the promise of possible EU membership.

During the talks, which lasted nearly four hours, the two sides were expected to discuss the fallout from Russia’s war on Ukraine and the strengthening of relations between the EU and the Western Balkans.

A draft of the summit’s conclusions, seen by EURACTIV, shows that EU leaders would again give “a full and unequivocal commitment to the prospect of EU membership of the Western Balkans” and “would call for the acceleration of the accession process”.

But it is likely that they will not make further commitments to the region.

The lack of progress on the steps towards joining the Union caused such disappointment that the leaders of North Macedonia, Albania and Serbia briefly considered not attending the meeting. .

They finally made the trip, but Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama reluctantly tweeted that “there won’t be much to wait for” European leaders.

An EU official told reporters that the EU would continue to support the region, including by offering “concrete socio-economic benefits to Western Balkan partners right from the accession negotiations” and gradually integrating them into the work of the EU.

“The EU Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans will provide up to €30 billion in investments to help the region recover economically and converge with the EU, to support strategic projects that improve the connectivity and resilience of the region”said the European official.

“The first package of 21 flagship projects, worth more than three billion euros, was already launched earlier this year. »

Obvious frustrations

However, an originally scheduled joint press conference with EU Council President Charles Michel, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has been canceled. “for reasons of time”.

This, however, gave the three disgruntled Western Balkan leaders an opportunity to vent their anger separately.

“We are wasting precious time”said the Prime Minister of North Macedonia, Dimitar Kovačevski, referring to his “dissatisfaction with the dynamics of the enlargement process”.

Claiming that Bulgaria’s veto was a “blow to the credibility of the EU”he went on to point out that his country had been stuck in the waiting room for 18 years.

Bulgaria has blocked the opening of accession negotiations with Skopje in 2020 due to a dispute over history and language. Albania is also held back because the EU has linked its progress to that of North Macedonia.

“We cannot be stuck in this situation because one country fails to unblock (…) we should not allow bilateral issues to become a multilateral issue”added Mr. Kovačevski.

Commenting on the French compromise proposal, he repeated that it would not be “not acceptable for me, for the citizens, the coalition partners, the president and the whole of North Macedonia. »

Continuing his defiant tone of the morning, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama complained that the EU was “unable to free two hostages”referring to Albania and North Macedonia, “It doesn’t make a good impression, especially in the context of the war.”

“Even a pandemic… a threatening war, failed to unite them”Rama said of the disunity of European leaders, referring to the war in Ukraine.

“Enlargement has gone from a shared vision of the community to a tool for kidnapping individual states”he added.

“I feel sorry for them. I hope we can help them”said Mr. Rama, who expressed his “deep sadness” for the EU, affirming that the spirit of enlargement is “twisted”.

Focusing on neighboring Kosovo, he described the lack of visa liberalization — Kosovo is the only country in the region still waiting for it — as “another kidnapping”.

“[L’Europe]is a nice place, nice people, nice pictures, nice words. But it would be even better if they kept their promises. One day we will become nice members of the EU”Mr. Rama said, adding later that if not soon, it will be“maybe in the next century”.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, who represented his country despite losing a vote of confidence in parliament on Wednesday, said in the morning he hoped for support for North Macedonia in the Bulgarian parliament soon, without giving further details. .

Serbia and the question of alignment

While tensions between Russia and the EU over Ukraine remain high, Serbia has come under pressure to align its foreign policy with that of the EU and introduce sanctions against Moscow, among others.

Russia controls the Balkan country’s oil industry and exercises a veto that effectively blocks recognition of the former Serbian province of Kosovo at the United Nations.

However, EU leaders did not put pressure on Serbia and the discussion was instead diverted to the Bulgarian veto against North Macedonia.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić refuted public perception of his country’s hesitation and, in some cases, unwillingness to apply EU sanctions.

“2629 articles in the European media about Serbia after the Russian incursion… about Serbia endangering an entire region…. Have you ever seen a single excuse from these media? » he asked.

He said the “Open Balkan” initiative was an idea between the three countries and was not subject to any outside influence, specifically denying any pressure from Russia or Hungary.

Mr. Vučić said that, although he does not share the same frustrations as Albania and North Macedonia, he hopes for a resolution of this difficult situation.

“They defend their country and their national interests in a very courageous way… we will all be in a much better mood in December than today”he concluded, winking at a summit planned for the end of the year which will probably again deal with the Western Balkans.

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