Western Balkans: Dateless accession perspective

Austria hosted a two-day informal meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers in Vienna on 30 and 31 August. Austria took over its third Presidency of the European Council from July 2018 until December 2018. [EPA-EFE/FLORIAN WIESER]

The inclusion of the Western Balkans in the European Union remains in focus. The timing of the bloc’s expansion, however, is more than uncertain. EURACTIV Germany reports from Vienna.

In the course of the EU’s accession negotiations with Austria 25 years ago, the government in Vienna was expected to use its traditionally good and historical ties with the countries of southeastern Europe to introduce them to Europe.

The current Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl are also trying to fulfil this mandate within the framework of the country’s Council Presidency. Therefore, representatives of the Western Balkan countries were invited to the foreign ministers meeting, which took place in Vienna last week.

The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also showed up for the usual family photo. Despite all the problems and no progress in the chapters currently under consideration, Turkey is still a candidate for EU membership.

And despite the country’s economic problems, its conflicts with the US, Ankara is clearly trying to improve the basis for talks with the EU. Cavusoglu even spoke of Ankara’s willingness to re-launch negotiations with Brussels.

Catching up process for Serbia & Co.

EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, made a clear statement: “The Western Balkans are traditionally seen as an unstable region where the EU has been seeking security for years and decades. The Austrian Presidency makes a remarkable contribution to keeping the Western Balkans at the top of the EU agenda.”

There is unity now in the EU for all Western Balkan states from Serbia to Albania to ultimately become part of the Union. However, those countries also have to do a lot of catching up in terms of the rule of law and the fight against corruption.

A concrete date for accession is still a long way off. Only with Serbia and Montenegro, is there a theoretical possibility to join the Club in 2025.

Crucial to this will be the resolution of the conflict between Belgrade and Pristina. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and his Kosovo counterpart Hashim Thaçi are currently intensively negotiating a settlement of the border, tentatively eyeing an exchange of land and thus a new demarcation.

However, this has been met with great scepticism at the foreign ministers’ conference. Not least because they fear that something like that could provoke a political storm and cause restlessness elsewhere.

“Ridiculous to talk about borders these days”

Thus, Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn emphasised once again that any solution in the Balkans must take into account the “overriding interest” in promoting stability in the region. Moreover, apart from the border question, there are still “many other aspects” to be discussed between Belgrade and Pristina anyway.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas seconded: “We believe that can open up too many old wounds in the population and therefore we are very sceptical.” This opinion is also shared by Finland and Luxembourg.

Kneissl played her cards close to her chest, but only in general held that border changes, as has been seen time and again in the past, “pose problems”. At home in Kosovo, Thaçi is facing scepticism. His foreign minister, Behgjet Pacolli, said: “It’s ridiculous for me to talk about borders nowadays.”

However, the issue remains on the agenda – the Austrian foreign minister announced – Vučić and Thaçi will meet in Brussels on 7 September as part of the EU-sponsored normalisation dialogue. Two days later, Vučić is due to deliver an eagerly awaited speech to the Serbs in northern Kosovo on this issue.

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