In Kosovo, which has been waiting for visa-free travel to the European Union since 2010, a restaurant owner has erected a large replica of France’s famous Eiffel Tower for its diners.
“We built it as a form of comfort for the people who cannot go to Paris,” said Blerim Bislimi, owner of Te Anija (At The Boat) restaurant on the outskirts of the capital Pristina.
The joke reflects a greater unrest in the Balkans over the prospects of its six members – Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, northern Macedonia and Serbia – to ever join the EU.
A lack of progress with milestones such as visa-free road travel has led to such a sense of disillusionment that the leaders of Albania and Serbia have briefly considered not attending Thursday’s Balkan EU summit in Brussels.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said on Wednesday they would go now, but Rama expressed his despair on Twitter: “We will attend the EU Council meeting. There will not be much to hear about.”
In Serbia, the largest country in the region, enthusiasm for EU membership has waned to such an extent that now 44% of people are against it and only 35% in favor of it, with the rest uncertain, according to an Ipsos poll in April.
A draft of the top statement seen by Reuters showed that EU leaders would once again give “full and unequivocal commitment to the EU membership perspective of the Western Balkans”.
But Ukraine’s rapid progress towards formal candidate status, which will be agreed at Thursday’s summit, has only served to increase their sense of margin, say Balkan countries, even if all but Bosnia and Kosovo are already EU candidates.
“Northern Macedonia and Albania have every right to be upset,” Zvezdana Kovac told the European Movement in Serbia, a non-profit organization that insists on Serbia’s EU membership, referring to the stalled negotiation process.
EU member Bulgaria blocked the start of accession talks with Northern Macedonia in 2020 over a dispute over history and language.
Albania’s progress is formally linked by the EU to that of northern Macedonia, which has already had to agree to settle a decade-long battle with Greece over its name to clear its path to EU membership. Northern Macedonia and Albania had earlier waited for a green light from France on their record of achievement on democracy and the fight against corruption.
EU diplomats do not expect a breakthrough at the summit.
Too many conditions?
Giving Ukraine its EU candidate status without any achievable progress for the Balkans is also a “bad message” for the region, Kovac said.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel have all visited the region and reiterated their support, but no concrete steps have not been taken.
There has been no progress in overcoming Bulgaria’s veto or greater momentum to assist Serbia and Montenegro in their negotiations, which require politically unpopular reforms.
Arton Demhasaj, of Cohu’s Pristina-based anti-corruption watchdog (Wake Up), said: “The European Union has no clear enlargement policy towards the Western Balkans.”
“If countries that strive to join the EU experience delays, they will reorient their policies and then we will have an increase in Russian and Chinese influence in the Western Balkans,” he said.
In contrast to the success of the EU’s eastern enlargement that has transformed former communist countries such as Poland into thriving market democracies, the EU approach now offers too little reward coupled with too many conditions, Balkan officials say.
Some EU governments, especially in France, the Netherlands and Denmark, fear a political setback in member states over migration from the Balkans and have sought to increase reforms.
“Too many EU governments think we can continue to make new demands on the Balkans and say: come back when you are done,” said a senior EU diplomat involved in the talks. “But it does not work that way, at some point they will give up.”