Frustrated Balkans seek reassurance at EU summit
Brdo Castle (Slovenia) (AFP)
Western Balkan countries can look forward to assurances, but no concrete progress on their stalled applications for EU membership when EU leaders meet on Wednesday.
The 27-nation club are expected to talk about multibillion-euro economic support to its eastern neighbors at a summit at Brdo Castle in Slovenia, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency.
Brussels is keen to show that it remains the best hope of the strategic region.
But there will be no breakthroughs when meeting with the leaders of Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo on the tortuous path to membership.
And there are growing fears that the frustration over years of waiting in vain for the EU’s doors to open may bring some candidate countries closer to Russia and China.
“This is the right time for us to assert ourselves and to clarify that the European Union continues to be the region’s largest donor,” said an EU official.
“The European Union continues to be the region’s main investor and the European Union continues to be the closest trading partner.
– No-show ‘Wedding’ –
The EU push for enlargement – once a key policy for the bloc – has come to a halt in recent years. Some richer member countries fear it will trigger a new wave of migration and some candidates are struggling with the necessary reforms.
France, Denmark and the Netherlands initially blocked membership negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia in 2019.
Bulgaria has since become the main obstacle to progress, refusing to let North Macedonia start the process due to a dispute over history and language.
During a tour of the region last week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she hoped to see talks with North Macedonia and Albania open this year, after the elections in Bulgaria.
“We have prepared for a wedding several times … but the guests did not show up,” replied Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama.
“We are no longer preparing for marriage, but we continue to show our love.”
It was only after fierce bargaining that EU members agreed to say that the bloc “reconfirms its commitment to the enlargement process” in a draft final declaration for the summit seen by AFP.
But diplomats rejected a request from Slovenia to commit to absorbing the candidates by 2030.
– China, Russia, pending –
As efforts to integrate the Western Balkans come up against a wall, the EU is increasingly concerned about incursions from Moscow and Beijing, which have sent millions of coronavirus vaccines to the region.
Moscow has deep cultural ties with other Orthodox nations such as Serbia, while Beijing has made significant loans in the region, including a controversial $ 1 billion road loan, which Montenegro is struggling to secure. refund.
The EU, in response, is touting an economic deal it says could deliver an “unprecedented” package of up to 30 billion euros ($ 35 billion) to the region.
Officials also promise to deliver “tangible” results for people in the Balkans, such as boosting vaccination rates to match EU levels this year and ending phone roaming charges.
Brussels won a minor diplomatic victory in the run-up to the summit as it negotiated a deal to ease a surge in tensions between Serbia and Kosovo over car license plates.
Former enemies were at loggerheads for nearly two weeks after Kosovo banned cars with Serbian license plates from entering its territory.
The latest feud between Serbia and the ethnic Albanian majority Kosovo, which involves the sensitive issue of the Kosovo Serb minority, has been the worst in years.
Kosovo proclaimed its independence from Serbia in 2008, a decade after a war between independence-seeking Albanian guerrillas and Serbian forces.
The EU-negotiated dialogue between the two Balkan neighbors, launched ten years ago, has so far failed to normalize their relations.
© 2021 AFP