EU leaders confirmed their “unequivocal support for the European perspective” to their Western Balkans counterparts during a video-summit on Wednesday (6 May). However, the final declaration doesn’t make reference to a tangible time frame for the region’s accession to the bloc.
In fact, while many in the Balkans bear high hopes of joining the EU, the summit might have left them disappointed. Accession negotiations, some of which have been going on for years, were not mentioned.
In March, North Macedonia and Albania had won approval to start EU membership talks after a two-year delay, helping to counter a sense in the region that hopes of joining the bloc were fading. To add to the problems, five EU countries do not recognise Kosovo’s independence, including Spain.
At the EU-Western Balkans summit, all leaders were asked to appear against neutral backgrounds to avoid insignia that one EU official said “would make the video conference difficult” as lingering diplomatic tensions mean nationalist symbols could cause offence.
The final declaration, despite previous criticism, left out the words ‘enlargement’ and ‘accession’ altogether, instead focusing on the cooperation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the need for continued reforms, especially on rule of law, fight against corruption and free media.
Speaking after the summit, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković played down the dissent, pledging that his country is a strong supporter of the region’s European future.
“In our view, these decisions were long overdue. We have also managed to adopt new methodology which will not only help Serbia and Montenegro, who already started negotiations, but also North Macedonia and Albania”, Plenković said.
He added that Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Croatia’s view, deserves the status of the candidate country.
“If we look at geography, there is nowhere else they can go,” Plenković added.
“We have reaffirmed and reconfirmed the position of the European perspective for the Western Balkans. It is important to continue the reforms, the rule of law, the democratic values, the fight against corruption – they are essential”, European Council President Charles Michel told reporters.
However, North Macedonia’s foreign minster Nikola Dimitrov, in an interview for N1 before the meeting, stated it would have been better to have the word “enlargement” in the declaration, though he prefers the phrase “completion”.
Dimitrov also said Skopje expects the Commission’s negotiating framework to be drafted by the beginning of June.
The minister also said that North Macedonia would never allow to be pressed to choose between its identity and European integration. He was referring to warnings from Sofia related to the lack of progress of a bilateral committee aimed at sorting out common history.
He got a rebuke from the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who said that EU accession was not obligatory. He pointed out at paragraph 9 from the summit declaration which in his word was a clear condition for Skopje to solve its issues with Bulgaria.
When addressing the leaders, European Parliament President David Sassoli warned that “the more political nature of the new enlargement methodology must not undermine the EU’s commitment to step-by-step accession on the basis of the individual merits of each candidate country”.
EU asks for more appreciation
But while the summit, initially planned as the high point of Croatia’s EU presidency in Zagreb, was intended to give hope to all six enlargement hopefuls, the response to the COVID-19 disease dominated discussions.
EU chiefs promised a “robust economic and investment plan for the region” in their final declaration, but in clear terms also called for greater appreciation of its previous crisis support.
Asked by reporters after the meeting if Balkan leaders should show more commitment for the EU, Plenković said that “their objective is the EU and this summit is helping them to go in the right direction.”
“The fact that this support and cooperation goes far beyond what any other partner has provided to the region deserves public acknowledgement,” the declaration stated, adding that this move would deserve more public recognition.
The Commission put down a €3.3 billion support package to help Western Balkans tackle the COVID-19 crisis, which includes a €1.7 billion package of assistance from the European Investment Bank and an additional €750 million of so-called “macro-financial assistance” designed to improve the macroeconomic stability of countries.
“Once we put behind us this immediate phase of the pandemic, EU will present the investment plan later this year – it will focus on necessary transport and energy infrastructure, but also Green New Deal and digitalisation”, Von der Leyen told reporters.
Geopolitical background vibes
The leaders’ statement also demanded Balkan countries to follow EU foreign policy objectives, a veiled reference to concerns about countries aligning themselves too closely to Russia and China, which the EU says does not offer the same path towards becoming prosperous democracies.
“The EU reiterates its calls on all partners to progress towards full alignment with EU foreign policy positions, notably on issues where major common interests are at stake, and to act accordingly,” the summit declaration said.
A comment that could be read as an allusion to criticism from Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, who caused a political stir in March stating “European solidarity is a fairytale”.
China, Russia and Turkey filled the gap left by the EU in the initial stages of the pandemic, sent help and were celebrated by regional politicians.
Against this background, the choice of words from the “perspective” instead of “membership” added to the notion of a contradictory message towards the region.
Effectively, EU member states, such as France and the Netherlands who in particular had blocked the inclusion of the word “enlargement” in the Zagreb summit document, did not dare to say this openly, as they don’t want to risk loosing the region to geopolitical competition, an EU officials suggested after the summit.
[Edited by Georgi Gotev]