US envoy knocks EU’s ‘bad message’ to the Balkans

The US Secretary of State's Special Representative for the Western Balkans Matthew Palmer in Skopje, Republic of North Macedonia, 29 October 2019. [Georgi Licovski/EPA/EFE]

Washington’s envoy to the Western Balkans on Monday (4 November) criticised the EU for delaying the start of membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania, saying it sent a “bad message” to a region where all countries hope to join the bloc.

The European Union unleashed a wave of disappointment through the Balkans last month when its member states failed to greenlight the start of enlargement talks with the two countries.

While many EU officials and leaders agreed the pair were ready to begin negotiations, France led a small group that vetoed the move, saying they want to revamp the accession process before taking in any new candidates.

All eyes on France after inconclusive enlargement summit debate

After a long night of inconclusive discussions, EU heads of state are set to return to the EU enlargement issue today (18 October). All eyes are on France, as Emmanuel Macron’s position has so far been the major stumbling block for opening accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania.

“In our opinion, this is a historical error and a bad message for the whole region,” Matthew Palmer, who was appointed by the US in August, told a press conference in Belgrade alongside Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić.

Palmer is one of two US envoys named in recent months to focus on a region riven by complex rivalries and disputes.

“We will do our best to convince the EU to change its position” at the next summit in May, he added.

All Western Balkan states hope to someday be absorbed into the EU, with Serbia and Montenegro furthest along in the accession process.

Snap election

But the waning appetite for enlargement in the bloc has spread skepticism about whether the day will ever come to pass.

Analysts say the EU’s credibility took a serious hit after it failed to honour a promise to North Macedonia in particular.

The country underwent a painful process of changing its name this year to end a row with Greece on the belief that it would open up the EU negotiations.

When it didn’t, the ruling party was forced to call a snap poll for next April.

Skopje on fire as MEPs slam EU leaders' failure to open accession talks

Postponing the start of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania was a “serious mistake” and “grave error”, European Council President Donald Tusk and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told MEPs on Tuesday, as negative effects already started showing in the Western Balkans.

Vučić also recently asked why he should trust Brussels when it comes to pressure to resolve his country’s conflict with Kosovo — Serbia’s main obstacle to joining the EU.

Serbia has been in accession negotiations since 2014, but Brussels says it won’t be accepted until it strikes a deal with the former province.

Kosovo broke away in a 1998-99 war and went on to declare independence which Belgrade has never accepted, a source of tension in the region.

On Monday Vučić nevertheless expressed hope that the frozen talks with Pristina could be revived soon.

“I believe that we will soon, in two or three months’ time, have all the conditions for the continuation of the dialogue we want, open, serious and leading to a compromise,” he said.

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