EU leaders to restate Western Balkans enlargement commitment but without timeline

European Council President Charles Michel (C) walks alongside the leaders of the Western Balkans nations (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia) following an informal summit at the EC headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 16 February 2020. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

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.

Media reports from last week suggested that EU member states could no longer agree to guarantee to expand the bloc to Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.

After weeks of disagreement over the wording of a summit declaration, negotiations on the eve of the summit in Slovenia seem to have yielded results, with the latest draft document stating that the EU “reconfirms its commitment to the enlargement process”.

“We also recall the importance that the EU can maintain and deepen its own development, ensuring its capacity to integrate new members,” the document adds.

However, the document later provides details on a broader economic, transport, health and security cooperation without mentioning the word ‘accession’ or offering any timeline.

“That statement, as it is presented, is trying to balance between the ambition of enlargement and the capacity of the EU to ensure its own developments,” one EU official said ahead of the summit.

The inclusion of the word ‘enlargement’ presents a small diplomatic victory for some, primarily Slovenia’s EU Council presidency, considering that previous documents have omitted the phrase altogether, instead opting for a softer ‘European perspective’ phrase.

Western Balkans summit encourages 'European perspective' but omits enlargement

A virtual meeting of EU and Western Balkan leaders to discuss the future of the region on Wednesday (6 May) will produce a final declaration that is set to omit the word “enlargement” altogether, instead focusing on EU support during the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of continued adherence to European value and reforms.

However, it remains to be seen whether the move will be enough to reassure countries in the region of the increasingly moribund enlargement’s credibility.

EU officials admit that the bloc’s capacity to integrate new members is not the only consideration for accepting new members.

An EU official said that the acceptance of enlargement in some EU member states “is also something that leaders are considering since we are in a unanimous process.”

A second EU official added that while there was no agreement on a summit declaration, the EU’s enlargement strategy still faced obstacles.

“I can’t say everything is fine,” the official said but stressed that, although “there are, of course, many issues, you also can’t say the door is closed.”

France and the Netherlands have long been at the forefront of those wary of expanding the EU any further. With the French presidential election lined up for next year, Brussels observers worry that movement on the politically sensitive issue is unlikely.

Ahead of the summit, Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has called for a start of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, saying “a clear message needs to be sent that joining for that Western Balkans is an achievable goal”.

Slovenia, which currently holds the EU Council presidency and will host the summit, had sought to include a commitment that the bloc takes in the six Balkan states by 2030. Still, the proposal failed to gain traction and will not appear in the document unless EU leaders agree to include it at the last minute.

Many EU diplomats, however, think such a timeline would not be unrealistic.

“In the end, we have to mind that all the six Western Balkans countries are at very different levels politically speaking, which means that there needs to be political will on both sides,” an EU diplomat told EURACTIV ahead of the summit.

“But effectively, it’s the need to give continued positive signals from us, visible for the citizens of those countries not to lose hope,” the diplomat said.

“It’s like with some Eastern and Baltic member states of the ‘big bang’ enlargement of 2004, the perspective needs to be followed by a tangible goal to reach,” the diplomat concluded.

Slovenian FM: EU inaction in Western Balkans 'strategically dangerous'

The EU needs to move “as soon as possible” from a wait-and-see approach to a problem-solving strategy in dealing with enlargement and the Western Balkans, Slovenian Foreign Minister Anže Logar told EURACTIV in an interview about the priorities for his country’s upcoming EU Council presidency.

The summit will also endorse the €30 billion Economic and Investment Plan (EIP) the European Commission put on the table earlier that will primarily focus on building new infrastructure in the region to boost economic development.

Asked if the package is a consolation prize given the stuck negotiations, an EU official said: “I think the consolation is quite huge, in fact, so I think it’s not bad whether you take it with or without the opening of accession”.

The document also takes a jab at the increasing presence of third players in the regions such as China, Russia, Gulf states and Turkey, pushing countries that receive EU support to be more vocal about it.

“The EU is by far the region’s closest partner, main investor and principal donor. The unprecedented scale and range of this support must be fully recognised and conveyed by the partners in their public debate and communication,” the draft declaration reads.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) had called for press freedom to be a topic at the Western Balkans summit as it is a condition for EU accession talks.

“Press freedom should not be a taboo subject at the EU-Balkans summit,” said Pavol Szalai, the head of RSF’s EU/Balkans desk, noting that press freedom was declining across all six EU-hopefuls.

“The EU should undoubtedly be more ambitious in its use of the seduction it exerts over the Western Balkans to enable the region’s citizens to have access to more reliable news and information,” he added.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Alice Taylor]

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