EU membership: Western Balkan candidates hope to follow Ukraine’s path

EU membership: Western Balkan candidates hope to follow Ukraine’s path

Three of the four Western Balkan countries applying for EU membership have signed a joint statement with Ukraine in support of its EU bid, signaling the torn eastern country’s accelerated accession process by war would not disrupt their own slow-moving integration into the bloc, but rather that the countries should complement and support each other.

The declaration was signed during the visit to Kyiv on Wednesday (June 15) of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and his Montenegrin counterpart Dritan Abazović.

The pair held a press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a trip to the war-torn country, while North Macedonia Prime Minister Dimitar Kovačevski joined them via video conference.

“Our states — Ukraine, the Republic of Albania, Montenegro and the Republic of North Macedonia — must become full members of the EU, and we agree that our countries are not competitors on this European path, but that they only complement and strengthen their respective capabilities”said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Rama said he fully supports Ukraine’s EU candidacy, adding that “the three countries believe in the European future of Ukraine”.

His opinion was shared by Mr. Abazović, who said it was a moral obligation to go to Kyiv and support the Ukrainian people and their dream of a better life. He had urged the six Western Balkan leaders to join the trip to kyiv, but Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo did not respond to the call.

The statement of support comes as EU leaders are due to meet their Western Balkan counterparts on June 23, ahead of a crucial EU summit to discuss Ukraine’s potential EU candidate status.

Albania and North Macedonia, although official candidates, have been in the waiting room for years, blocked by corruption and asylum problems as well as, in the case of Skopje, by Bulgaria’s veto , its neighbor which is a member of the EU.

European diplomats believe that no major progress is expected for these two countries, especially since the Bulgarian government, in place for six months, was on the verge of collapse.

Enlargement will generally remain a contentious issue as there has been virtually no progress over the past decade, despite assurances from the European Commission that “the clear European perspective”.

“After Russia’s attack on Ukraine, and in light of the influence of third parties in the Western Balkan region, which is the most vulnerable on the European continent, enlargement has become a security issue”Mr Kovačevski, from North Macedonia, told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview earlier this month.

Asked about reactions if Ukraine were to gain candidate status in June, which has often been presented as “cutting the queue” to get ahead of Western Balkan countries, Kovačevski said: “They deserve to fight for their prosperity and for their future in the EU”.

“We can only wish them luck in their aspirations to apply for EU membership, but the EU must be aware that it must deliver on its promises, and not just its promises”he continued.

Ukrainian officials have presented their country’s EU candidacy as an opportunity for the Western Balkans to relaunch the process currently on hold.

Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration, Olha Stefanishyna, told EURACTIV last month that “without the Ukrainian candidacy, the dialogue on enlargement would perhaps not have been relaunched for the Western Balkans”.

“We do not see this as an obstacle, but as an opportunity for the Western Balkans to relaunch the whole narrative on EU enlargement”said Ms. Stefanishyna.

For some, membership still seems a long way off

For Kosovo, which only became independent in 2008, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, the outlook is even bleaker. Both countries are trying to obtain candidate status. Bosnia has already applied but failed to meet a number of recommendations made by the bloc.

Kosovo, which is not recognized by five EU member states — Spain, Cyprus, Romania, Slovakia and Greece — said earlier this month that it would apply for EU membership the end of this year.

In Kyiv, Mr Rama implored Ukraine to recognize Kosovo, hinting that this could help his own progress towards the EU.

“Ukraine has not recognized Kosovo, and I said during the press conference and publicly that you should reconsider recognizing Kosovo because they deserve it. »

“It would be good if Ukraine sent the right message about the new European reality that we want to build. »

A noticeable absence

Serbia, the only European country, apart from Belarus, not to have taken part in EU sanctions against Russia, was conspicuous by its absence during the visit and the agreement. Serbia gets almost all of its oil and gas from Russia and is a traditional ally of Moscow.

Belgrade has also recorded a number of pro-Russian rallies since the invasion of Moscow.

On Monday (June 13), the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET) said that Serbia should demonstrate its commitment to policies and standards and should reconsider its relationship with Russia.

Lawmakers also regretted that Belgrade-Moscow flights continued to operate as normal despite the EU closing its airspace to Russian planes.

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