The European Union’s 27 leaders promised future membership to their six Balkan neighbours on Wednesday, restating a pledge first made 18 years ago, but they brushed aside calls for a 2030 goal, fearing a backlash at home over migration.
After weeks of deliberation, EU leaders agreed that Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania have a place in the world’s largest trading bloc if they fulfil the criteria on areas from judicial reform to economics.
But with the “enlargement process” blocked by various disputes both in Brussels and Serbian political leaders reluctant to ever recognise Kosovo’s 2008 independence, many in the Balkans feel the EU declaration is an empty statement.
“The EU reaffirms its unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans and welcomes the commitment of the Western Balkans partners to the European perspective,” the final summit declaration said.
“The EU reconfirms its commitment to the enlargement process,” it said, although France and others insisted on wording that the bloc focus on “credible reforms by partners, fair and rigorous conditionality and the principle of own merits.”
Northern countries such as Denmark, France and the Netherlands fear a repeat of the rushed accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 and the poorly managed migration of eastern European workers to Britain that turned many Britons against the EU. Bulgaria is against North Macedonia joining because of a language and cultural row over shared history.
The EU is by far the biggest foreign investor and trade partner of the six countries that emerged from the break-up of Yugoslavia and the ethnic wars of the 1990s. China accounts for only about 8% of the Balkans’ international trade, according to the World Bank, compared with almost 70% with the EU.
But an attempt by EU presidency chair Slovenia to make 2030 a target date for the six countries to join was unsuccessful and the bloc has also failed to make good on promises that are tangible to citizens, such as visa-free travel for Kosovo.
Taking the 27-nation club to 33 members would complicate the bloc’s strained decision-making and underline the need for internal EU reform that few states want to embark upon.
‘THIS IS OUR BACKYARD’
“It has been a great injustice, a lack of fairness towards citizens of our country,” Kosovo’s prime minister Albin Kurti said as he arrived at the summit, noting that five EU states still did not recognise Kosovo’s independence. That is largely out of fear of emboldening separatist movements at home, such as in Spain’s Catalonia.
“I advocate for a lack of fear on the EU’s side, and a lack of bitterness on the side of the Balkans,” he added. “I am still hopeful”.
Following a dinner on Tuesday at Brdo Castle near the capital Ljubljana that focused on the EU’s strategy towards China, Afghanistan and the United States, several EU leaders said foreign policy should start at home in Balkans.
“This is our backyard,” Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins told reporters, a view that was also shared by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.
“If the European Union does not offer this region a real perspective, we have to be aware that other superpowers – China, Russia or Turkey – will play a bigger role there. The region belongs to Europe geographically, and it needs a European perspective,” Kurz said.
Bulgaria’s President Rumen Radev met with France’s Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier on Wednesday to try to overcome the impasse over North Macedonia, according to a spokesperson for the German government. Until Bulgaria’s election next month, no progress is expected on the issue, diplomats said.
Photo – The group photo after the European Union’s summit in Slovenia with the Balkan countries. EC Audiovisual Service.