Rajoy has an issue with Western Balkans summit in Sofia

A handout photo made available by the Spanish Prime Minister' Office shows Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (L) as he shakes hands with his Bulgarian counterpart Boyko Borisov (R) on the second day of the European Council meeting in Brussels, 23 March 2018. [Handout photo/EPA/EFE]

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has told his Bulgarian colleague Boyko Borissov in no uncertain terms that he has a problem with the Western Balkans summit in Sofia, scheduled for 17 May, and may not even come if Kosovo is participating.

The two premiers met on the sidelines of an EU summit on Friday (23 March).

Bulgaria, which holds the rotating Presidency of the EU Council, plans to host the leaders of the remaining 27 EU members and the six Western Balkans countries, including Kosovo, at an EU-Western Balkans summit. Never before has Bulgaria hosted an international meeting of this magnitude and the event was to be the highlight of its presidency.

Juncker throws his weight behind Bulgaria's Western Balkan plan

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Friday (12 January) he would personally talk to each of the six Western Balkan leaders to hear what they expect from the plans by Bulgaria’s EU presidency to revive their long-stalled EU membership prospects.

Kosovo, a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008, is not recognised by six EU member states: Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia and Romania. The main reason is that these countries fear separatism in their own territory and disapprove of the way Kosovo seceded from Serbia.

In Spain, the sensitivities are even more pronounced in the context of the fresh push for independence in Catalonia.

Rajoy said he could attend a dinner of EU member states the day before the Sofia summit, but for the next day, he said: “We have an important issue. Some speak of enlargement with countries which are not recognised, including by Spain. This causes us some worry”.

The issue has already been highlighted by Spanish media, which were also quick to recall the ‘dark past’ of Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi and  Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj from the period of an armed conflict between the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and Serbian troops.

Both Kosovo officials have been linked to wartime atrocities and have denied any wrongdoing.

A Council source told EURACTIV that the invitations for the Western Balkans summit, signed by Council President Donald Tusk, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and by Borissov, were due to be sent today. Apparently, both Rajoy and Thaçi are invited.

It has been suggested that both the Council and the Bulgarian presidency are prepared to use tricks to accommodate the countries that don’t recognise Kosovo, like not having flags, or using only the names of the participants, without their countries.

The narrative designed to downplay Rajoy’s absence would say that in big meetings, there is almost never a “full house”.

Spain says the Sofia meeting is not really an EU summit, but an initiative by Borissov in the framework of the Bulgarian Presidency.

There have been summits with the leaders of the Western Balkans in the EU framework, including Kosovo, but never with all member states. The last summit when all Western Balkan countries were invited together was in Thessaloniki in 2003, with the then 15 EU member countries. But at that time Kosovo was an international protectorate and was represented by a UN official.

EU institutions believe it will be possible to solve the Kosovo conundrum when Serbia’s accession negotiations enter the last lap and, as the last step, Belgrade is required to recognise Pristina.

Juncker: Normalisation deal with Kosovo is key for Serbia's EU bid

The rule of law, judiciary and a legally binding agreement on normalising relations with Kosovo are the main challenges Serbia faces with on the road to EU membership, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker highlighted during a visit to Belgrade.

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