EU ministers narrowly find common ground on enlargement promises to Western Balkans

Slovenia European Affairs Minister Gasper Dovzan at the start of the General Affairs Council, in Brussels, Belgium, 14 December 2021. Ministers will discuss the rule of law in Poland and the values of the European Union in Hungary, while preparing the European Council to be held on 16 December 2021. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

European Union governments reaffirmed on Tuesday (14 December) their promise to allow six Balkan countries to one day join the bloc following heated disagreements during negotiations.

A year ago, EU governments were unable to agree upon a statement that was due to boost the EU’s strategy to bring in the six membership hopefuls.

The Western Balkan states include Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia.

Negotiations on a common EU position were also fraught this year as EU states worried about repeating 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.

“It seems these countries have forgotten the geopolitical imperative they claimed paramount for accession”, one EU diplomat told EURACTIV.

Bulgaria: No timelines

Bulgaria’s new government, which was approved on Monday, is yet to lift its predecessor’s veto on North Macedonia starting EU membership talks and resolve a dispute over history and language, although the process will take time. Albania’s progress is formally tied by the EU to North Macedonia.

New Bulgarian PM proposes ‘very fast process’ to lift North Macedonia veto

The new Bulgarian government will propose a “very fast” new process that should help Sofia lift its veto and unlock the start of neighbouring North Macedonia’s EU accession negotiations, Bulgaria’s new prime minister, Kiril Petkov, has told the Financial Times. The announcement was welcomed by Skopje.

The Bulgarian delegation managed to bloc language referring to kickstarting the process this year.

Words “as soon as possible this year”, appearing in an earlier version of the document seen by EURACTIV were changed to: “The Council looks forward to the holding of the first intergovernmental conference …  as soon as possible, after the approval of the negotiating framework by the Council.”

Croats get the upper hand

Meanwhile, EURACTIV has learnt that another part of the conclusions were held up by Zagreb, which backed ethnic Croats’ demands in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The loose central institutions of BiH hold Serb-dominated Republika Srpska in an uneasy state alliance with the Bosniak-Croat federation.

HDZ BiH, the biggest Croat party, and its leader, Dragan Čović, — who despite claiming support of the majority of Croats is not the current member of the country’s tripartite presidency representing the Bosniaks (Bosnia Muslims), Croats and Serbs, — demand reform of electoral rules.

The HDZ refuses to acknowledge the current Croat representative, Željko Komšić, saying he had been elected thanks to Bosniak votes.

Čović and the HDZ have been demanding an overhaul of the electoral law in a way that would bolster the position of Croats in elections in the Federation, where Bosniaks represent a sizeable majority.

The issue of whether to acknowledge the HDZ’s claims has divided EU countries and political groups.

EU enlargement chief in Bosnia in effort to keep crisis from boiling over

European Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi travels to Bosnia and Herzegovina on Wednesday and Thursday (24-25 November) in an effort to defuse the ongoing political crisis in the country that is once again cracking along ethnic lines after a bloody 1992-95 war.

The initial draft conclusions emphasised the importance of implementing the Sejdić-Finci ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

The 2009 judgement – which has not been implemented – has ordered Bosnia to remove ethnic prefixes from the election of presidency members.

Until now, only members of so-called constituent nations – Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks – can run for Bosnia’s three-person, inter-ethnic presidency.

If the ruling is implemented, any BiH citizen, regardless of ethnicity, could be elected for one of the presidency seats.

The earlier draft of the EU text adopted on Tuesday circulated amongst bloc delegations placed the emphasis on implementing the ruling, followed by a call for “limited constitutional reforms.”

While the language on reforms was preserved in the adopted text, the references were moved to the end of the paragraph, with the emphasis instead placed on underlining that “no legislative or political step should be taken” that would make implementing the judgement harder.

Moreover, following demands from Zagreb, a new sentence appeared: “the Council underlines that a number of [BiH] Constitutional court decisions have yet to be fully enforced”.

The phrase is likely referencing the 2016 “Ljubic” ruling, that found certain provisions of the Federation entity legislation that Croats claimed disadvantaged the ethnicity unconstitutional.

EURACTIV understands that Germany and the Netherlands, who were opposed to the Croatian amendments, ultimately agreed to the changes in exchange for Bulgaria’s blessing of language concerning North Macedonia.

“They just gave in”, one EU source said.

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