Brussels, Oct. 5 (BNA): As European Union leaders gather for a summit on how to continue to engage with their neighbors in the Western Balkans, the bloc’s successful enlargement policy faces an impasse.
The European Commission has made repeated promises that the future of six countries in the region lies within the 27-nation bloc. But progress stalled on the admission of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia amid divisions among member states and some bilateral issues.
Nationalist populism rose in Hungary and Poland, undermining unity. The entry of more than 1 million immigrants in 2015 exposed stark differences in how they were managed, sparking a major political crisis that has yet to be resolved, The Associated Press reports.
EU enlargement has also been routinely sidelined by crises such as the Greek financial meltdown and Britain’s drawn-out Brexit, leaving the union focused heavily on its survival rather than accepting new members. The planned departure of long-time German chancellor Angela Merkel and next year’s presidential election in France have deprived the EU of clear leadership, adding to the decision-making burden.
Although EU member states are expected to reaffirm their commitment to the enlargement process during Wednesday’s meeting, they will stop offering a clear deadline, according to a draft document seen by The Associated Press.
The stalemate has frustrated the candidates amid rising tensions on the border between Kosovo and Serbia, raising questions about the bloc’s commitment.
People’s dignity must be preserved, you know. “We cannot beg, we cannot stand in the EU lobby when we are Europe culturally and geographically,” said Predrag Tasic, a retired judge in North Macedonia. “Europe without the Balkans, without this region, is not Europe.”
The six are at different stages on the path to EU membership. Montenegro and Serbia are the most advanced, having opened formal accession talks years ago. Albania and North Macedonia await the formal opening of negotiations, and Kosovo and Bosnia are possible candidates.
After EU leaders did not agree to move forward with their negotiations with Serbia in June, the latest wrinkles have focused on Albania and North Macedonia. These countries have fulfilled the criteria to start accession talks, but EU member Bulgaria opposes the annexation of North Macedonia due to disagreement over language and national identity.
Since the Albanian and North Macedonian bids are tied together, and the start of accession talks requires unanimous approval from all EU countries, a veto has also prevented Albania from moving forward.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said: “This is actually holding us hostage at a time when we have done all our tasks and are waiting to sit around the table with the European Union to start negotiations.”
Albania and North Macedonia had been expecting to get the green light to start negotiations to join the wealthy club of Europe two years ago, but their hopes were dashed at that time due to opposition from France and the Netherlands.
The European Union has long said that membership is based on a candidate’s progress in areas such as respect for the rule of law and democratic standards, or the implementation of social and economic reforms. But in the case of Albania and North Macedonia, the benefits approved by the commission are not rewarded.
“It is not out of this obligation to obstruct this process,” said North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. We have taken all the necessary steps and made all the required repairs. We will take the additional acceptable steps to unleash EU enlargement and expect Bulgaria to launch this process.”
But the government in Sofia, which wants North Macedonia to officially recognize that its language has Bulgarian roots, has given no indication that it is willing to file a veto. Other EU countries have not shown a strong desire to speed up the process.
Among the major players in the EU, Merkel has used her influence to prop up Slovenia, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU Council, and has made enlargement a priority.
Albania and North Macedonia’s shows are currently looking more popular outside the bloc, with senior US officials warning that Western adversaries such as China and Russia will continue to gain influence in the region if the dispute remains unresolved.
In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, US Deputy Secretary of State Gabriel Escobar, who oversees the Western Balkans, urged the European Union to start talks this year with the two countries.
Serbia, the largest of the Western Balkans, maintains close ties with China and Russia, a Slavic ally despite warnings from the West about the influence of the two powers in the region. Some in the West fear that Russia, which has been arming Serbia, could encourage authoritarian Serbian leader Aleksandar Vucic to destabilize the still-turbulent region.
Public interest in membership has gradually begun to decline in Serbia, and its leaders have often sent conflicting signals about their true commitment to the European Union.
“All these years and even decades we have been listening to the promises of membership from the European Union,” said Serbian Parliament Speaker Ivica Dacic. The question is which generation will see those promises fulfilled. Why don’t they simply tell us, ‘We no longer want EU enlargement’, and we will accept it as a fact? “
The prospect of membership has been a powerful driving force for reforms in the Balkans since the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia in the war in the early 1990s. Croatia and Slovenia joined, but the EU has not expanded since 2013.
Experts often point to the migration crisis as one of the main causes of paralysis. There are fears that the expansion could lead to another influx of those seeking a better life.
Ongoing tensions between Serbia and Kosovo are not helping either. Five EU members – Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain – do not recognize Kosovo as a state.
“It is essential that Kosovo and Serbia normalize their relations,” said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. “EU-facilitated dialogue is the only platform for resolving the current crisis.”
While the EU is not in a position to offer a clear perspective to Balkan candidates, it can at least provide financial support.
The bloc said it will provide about 30 billion euros (about $34.8 billion) to the region over the next seven years in an effort to boost economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and accelerate improvements in the environmental and digital fields.