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.
“We are satisfied because we have managed to make sure that the EU will intensify its engagement in the region at all levels, that there will be regular high-level meetings to ensure continuity. Politically, that’s a powerful message,” said a source close to the Croatian presidency of the Council.
“The meeting is called EU-Western Balkans Zagreb Summit, and the final document the Zagreb declaration, which gives it more weight,” the source added.
The summit, still keeping the name of the Croatian capital but taking place via video conference due to the pandemic, will highlight the EU’s “unequivocal support for the European perspective” of the region, according to the draft declaration seen by EURACTIV.
It also contains, for the first time, a phrase reaffirming the commitment of the Western Balkans to EU integration. The novelty is seen as necessary, in the light of Serbia’s recent overtures to China.
A diplomatic source familiar with the last Council meeting of EU ambassadors (COREPER), acknowledged that “some countries had gone to extra length to make sure the word ‘enlargement’ does not appear in the declaration.”
“Enlargement was off-limits, but the biggest feat had already been achieved in March, when the leaders gave the green light for opening negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia.”
In March European leaders gave Commission the go-ahead to start preparing membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania, a turnaround supposed to restore “credibility” after last October, when France led a small group of countries in blocking accession talks.
The green light came with special conditions for Albania related to justice and the rule of law reforms that need to be fulfilled before talks can start.
Trouble may also be on the horizon for Skopje after recent indications that Bulgaria may block its membership talks due to a perceived lack of progress on determining the common history of the two neighbouring countries.
“We are not discussing enlargement today, one of the main reasons being COVID-19,” an EU official told a press briefing on Tuesday (5 May).
Asked if not mentioning enlargement is damaging, the official said “for the region and each partner, the EU remains number one,” pointing out that China and Russia do not offer a real alternative.
The draft declaration states that cooperation should increase “on addressing disinformation and other hybrid activities originating in particular from third-state actors seeking to undermine the European perspective for the region.”
EU services have previously reported that disinformation campaigns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic are feeding into the narrative that the EU is “turning its back” on the Western Balkans.
In a bid to cement EU leadership, in the run-up to the summit the Commission put down a €3.3 billion “reinforced” support package to help Western Balkans tackle the COVID-19 crisis.
The bulk of the support will come in a form of loans with €1.7 billion package of assistance from the European Investment Bank and an additional €750 million previously announced so-called “macro-financial assistance” designed to improve the macroeconomic stability of countries.
The package will be followed up with an economic and investment plan, previously scheduled for May, later this year once the first emergency phase is over.
Croatia’s efforts to keep the fledgeling enlargement process on the radar were not lost on the Western Balkans region.
Srdjan Majstorović, the head of Belgrade-based European Policy Centre think thank, said that “we need to give due credit to Croatia as the presiding country, for securing the consensus of EU27 on the new methodology and the opening of talks, and for organising the summit despite the difficult circumstances.”
“With this, it managed to keep enlargement in the EU’s focus,” Majstorović said in emailed comments.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Georgi Gotev]