EU leaders offer words, funds to disillusioned Western Balkans

EU leaders and their counterparts from the six Western Balkan countries. [European Union]

EU leaders failed to make any further tangible commitment to enlargement on Wednesday (6 October), and instead promised once again “the European perspective” and broader economic support to the increasingly disillusioned Western Balkans, in the hope of keeping the region on its European path.

“The EU reaffirms its unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans,” said the final declaration of the EU-Western Balkans summit at Brdo, Slovenia,  a wording reported by EURACTIV ahead of the summit.

“The EU reconfirms its commitment to the enlargement process,” it said, although EU leaders had insisted that the bloc should focus on “credible reforms by partners, fair and rigorous conditionality and the principle of own merits.”

The stronger language, which went a step beyond softer diplomatic terminology used in recent years, was one of the few new elements of the event, which instead focused on the economic and environmental future of the largely impoverished region.

But with the process blocked by various disputes, many in the Western Balkans feel the EU declaration might remain an empty statement.

Furthermore, considering that the enlargement-wary France is unlikely to make EU accession a priority during its EU Council presidency in early 2022, some EU diplomats already worry that the process might soon take a backseat.

EU leaders to restate Western Balkans enlargement commitment but without timeline

EU leaders are set to reconfirm their commitment to further enlargement ahead of a summit with the six Western Balkan hopefuls on Wednesday (6 October), offering much broader cooperation to the region but failing to commit to a timeline, according to a draft document seen by EURACTIV.

Speaking in Brdo after the summit, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen admitted that in her last week’s tour of the region she had “felt people’s impatience and partly their frustration over the length of the process to join the EU.”

Von der Leyen said that much progress had been made but the region had to “stay the course” on fundamental reforms. However, European Council President Charles Michel’s comments suggested that reforms alone would not be enough for the countries to be admitted to the bloc.

“I would like to highlight in all frankness (…) there is an ongoing discussion among the 27 of our capacity to take on new members,” Michel said, speaking alongside von der Leyen and Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, who hosted the summit, a supposed highlight of Slovenia’s EU Council presidency.

Progress will be “indispensable” in order to figure out how the bloc wants “to take decisions together”, Michel said, hinting at a potential overhaul of the EU’s unanimity requirement on policy areas such as foreign affairs and enlargement.

No dates set

Jansa, however, emphasised that internal EU reforms should go hand in hand with enlargement.

“First, the European institutions will need to also follow through certain processes so that it will be efficient if enlarged, … but in parallel, the negotiating process should also go on. We believe that negotiations do not only allow for but make resolving of these bilateral issues easier,” Jansa said.

Slovenia, which joined the EU in 2004, is traditionally a strong supporter of enlargement.

Earlier, Slovenia, backed by Bulgaria and Hungary, had sought to include a commitment to admit the six Western Balkan states into the bloc by 2030. Although this failed, EURACTIV understands that Jansa made one last-ditch attempt to revive this discussion at the informal dinner on Tuesday.

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel rejected the idea outright.

“I don’t really believe in setting dates, I believe in making good on our promises: Once the conditions are met, the accession can take place,” Merkel told reporters after the summit.

A deadline would put the EU under pressure, regardless of whether the Western Balkan states fulfilled the conditions set by the 27-nation bloc or not, she said.

Her words were echoed by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who said setting a deadline for accession went too far for many EU member states.

The Brdo summit declaration mentions the intention to make joint summits with Western Balkans leaders a regular occurrence, with the next one scheduled for next year.

EURACTIV has learnt that the Czech Republic is keen to host the next EU-Western Balkans summit during their six-month turn at the helm of the EU Council, after France.

Bulgarian veto

At the same time, the start of North Macedonia’s accession talks has been blocked by Bulgaria since November 2020.

Von der Leyen warned that the delay on green-lighting the start of the country’s and Albania’s accession talks is “jeopardizing our standing and our leverage in the region,” von der Leyen told reporters in Brdo.

EURACTIV understands that Sofia and Skopje are working on a bilateral protocol with six areas of cooperation, which could see the former lifting its veto on the European perspective of Macedonians in early November.

On the sidelines of the summit, the European pressure on Sofia to unblock Skopje’s EU path was particularly visible, with Bulgaria’s President Rumen Radev and his counterpart Zoran Zaev engaged in a series of mediation meetings.

For now, Skopje is hostage to the pre-election situation in Sofia, which has no prospects of producing a government at least until the end of November.

Sofia asks Skopje to stop the 'erasure' of Bulgarians

At the Western Balkans summit in Brdo, Slovenia, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev told North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev that the “subtle erasure” of Bulgarian identity in the neighbouring country must stop before Bulgaria lifts its veto on Skopje’s EU accession negotiations. EURACTIV Bulgaria reports.

However, diplomatic sources revealed that the patience of other member states with Sofia’s intransigence is likely to run thin if there is no movement shortly after the November elections.

Money, money, money

To soothe growing frustrations in the region, the summit talks with Western Balkan counterparts centred around future investments under the EU’s support package for the region.

The EU’s €3.3 billion pandemic support to date will now be topped up by another €1.1 billion by end of 201, part of the €9 billion in grants and a new guarantee scheme that Brussels hopes will generate another €20 billion of investment in the region.

The package, referred to as the Economic and Investment Plan (EIP), is nothing new — and was proposed last year by the European Commission, which hopes the injections could represent almost a third of the total GDP of the region, currently at about €100 billion, and lead to a growth of 3.6%.

Investments will concentrate on bringing the Western Balkans on board with the EU’s green agenda and improving infrastructure.

In 2020, economic activity in the region contracted by an estimated 3.4%, according to the latest World Bank data, the worst downturn on record.

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