Sunday, October 17, 2021

Progress stalls on EU entry for Western Balkan countries

BRUSSELS (WNN) – As EU leaders gather for a summit on how to stay connected with their western Balkan neighbours, the bloc’s once successful expansion policy faces an impasse.

The European Commission made repeated promises that the future of the six countries in the region lay within the 27-nation bloc. But progress has stalled over divisions between member states and acknowledging some bilateral issues including Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.

Nationalist populism has increased in Hungary and Poland, undermining unity. The admission of more than 1 million migrants in 2015 has exposed clear differences about how to manage them, leading to a major political crisis that has yet to be resolved.

EU expansion has also been regularly sidelined by crises such as the Greek financial meltdown and Britain’s exit, leading the bloc to focus on its own survival rather than taking on new members. The planned departure of longtime German Chancellor Angela Merkel and next year’s presidential election in France have deprived the European Union of clear leadership, increasing the burden of decision-making.

Although EU member states are expected to reaffirm their commitment to the expansion process during Wednesday’s meeting, they will hold off on providing a clear deadline, according to a draft document seen by the Associated Press.

The standoff amid border tensions between Kosovo and Serbia is causing frustration among the candidates, raising questions about the bloc’s commitment.

“The dignity of the people has to be maintained, you know. We cannot beg, we cannot stand in the EU lobby when culturally and geographically we are Europe,” said Predrag Tasik, a retired judge in North Macedonia. “Europe without the Balkans, without the region, is not Europe.”

The six are at various stages on the EU membership path. Montenegro and Serbia are the most advanced, having started formal accession talks years ago. Albania and North Macedonia await the official opening of the talks, and Kosovo and Bosnia are likely candidates.

The latest wrinkle focuses on Albania and North Macedonia, after EU leaders agreed not to proceed with talks with Serbia in June. Those countries have met the criteria to start entry negotiations, but EU member Bulgaria has opposed the inclusion of North Macedonia due to disputes over language and national identity.

Since the Albanian and North Macedonian dialects are linked and require unanimous approval from all EU countries to begin accession negotiations, the veto has also prevented Albania from proceeding.

“It is really holding us hostage at a time when we have completed all our tasks and are waiting to sit down at the table with the EU to start negotiations,” Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said.

Albania and North Macedonia had been hoping to get the green light to start talks on joining Europe’s affluent club two years ago, but their hopes were dashed at the time by opposition from France and the Netherlands.

The European Union has always stated that membership is based on the candidate’s progress in areas such as the rule of law and respect for democratic standards, or the implementation of socio-economic reforms. But in the case of Albania and North Macedonia, the merits accepted by the Commission are not rewarded.

“Blocking this process is not in the spirit of this commitment,” said North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. “We took all the necessary steps and we made all the necessary improvements. We will take additional acceptable steps to unlock the expansion of the European Union and we hope that Bulgaria will unlock this process.

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But the government in Sofia, which wants North Macedonia to formally recognize that its language has Bulgarian roots, has given no indication that it is ready to lift its veto. And other EU countries have not shown a strong appetite to speed up the process.

Among the EU’s key players, only Merkel is using her influence to support Slovenia, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU Council and has made expansion a priority for her term.

The Albanian and North Macedonian dialects currently appear to be more popular outside the bloc, as senior US officials have warned 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 EU to start talks with the two countries this year.

Serbia, the largest of the Western Balkans, continues to maintain close ties with China and Slavic ally Russia, despite warnings from the West about the influence of the two powers in the region. Some in the West fear that Russia, which is arming Serbia, may encourage authoritarian Serbian leader Aleksandar Vucic to destabilize the still-shaky region.

Public interest in membership is slowly declining in Serbia, and its leaders have often sent mixed signals about their genuine EU commitment.

“For all these years and even decades we have been hearing about membership promises from the European Union,” said Serbian parliament speaker Ivica Deसिकi. “The question is which generation will see those promises come true. Why don’t they just tell us, ‘We no longer want an expansion of the EU,’ and we will accept that as a reality?”

The prospect of membership has been a powerful driving force for reforms in the Balkans since the former Yugoslavia was disbanded in war in the early 1990s. Croatia and Slovenia have joined, but the EU has not expanded since 2013.

The migration crisis is often cited by experts as one of the leading causes of paralysis. There are fears that the enlargement will create another influx of better life seekers.

The ongoing tension between Serbia and Kosovo doesn’t help either. The five members of the European Union – Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain – do not recognize Kosovo as a country.

“It is important that Kosovo and Serbia normalize their relations,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. “EU-facilitated dialogue is the only forum to resolve the current crisis.”

While the EU is not in a position to give a clear perspective to Balkan candidates, it can at least offer financial support.

The bloc said it would provide some 30 billion euros (about $34.8 billion) to the sector over the next seven years, spurring economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and accelerating reforms in the environmental and digital sectors.

Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, and WNN photographer Boris Gradanoski in Skopje, North Macedonia, contributed.

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