The author of this brief was present at the Thessaloniki 2003 summit, where EU leaders pledged to the Western Balkan countries that they would join the bloc when they are ready.
It was a critical juncture. EU enlargement was on its way, and already the following year, in 2004, eight countries from Eastern Europe, plus Malta and Cyprus, became EU members. Three years later, Bulgaria and Romania followed suit. Croatia was an exception, joining on its own in 2013, thanks to its good image and support from key capitals, including Washington.
Even then, some had already remarked that Zagreb had hopped on the last EU-bound train, as it was already leaving the station.
At that time, EU enlargement was still considered one of the greatest EU projects ever, together with the euro, as the first coins started to circulate in 2002.
I also had the honour to give Jacques Delors his very first euro coin. We met in Paris, and I bought the coins from the nearest postal office. He looked at the one-euro coin with tears in his eyes, then returned it to me. Delors was the father of enlargement and the euro, but apparently, no one had sent him a complimentary kit of coins.
In Thessaloniki, the atmosphere was festive; the hosts overwhelmed the guests with delicious cuisine, a cultural programme and presents (even journalists received gifts, there was such largesse back then). The food and wine were plentiful and free.
These are details, but they are also important. Fast-forward to the present day, and the atmosphere is totally different. From Thessaloniki, I wrote to the Bulgarian newspaper I worked for that Bulgaria should better hurry up with its accession because it may soon end.
In hindsight, I don’t think Bulgaria would be accepted in the EU today, no more than any of the six Western Balkan hopefuls.
Diplomats now say that the Thessaloniki promise is no longer valid. By the way, they mention Bulgaria and Romania as an example of rushed accession that has turned many Europeans against further enlargement.
Bulgaria looks like a troublemaker because of its current veto against Skopje, even though when other countries, including France, vetoed Skopje, that was considered legitimate. So let’s face it: Bulgaria is not the real, and certainly not the only, reason enlargement is on hold.
While I write these lines, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is on a whirlwind tour of the Western Balkan capitals, trying to reassure them ahead of the EU-Western Balkan summit in Brdo, Slovenia, next week.
Actually, the leadership in all six Western Balkan countries understands the mood in the EU; they’ve been counting on EU funding for a long time, but much less so on the perspective of real accession, or “the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries”, as the Thessaloniki declaration put it.
It is trickier when it comes to public opinion. The people of the Western Balkans are overall pro-EU, but they also feel offended by what looks like a series of broken promises, egoism and hypocrisy on the EU part. Russia and China, and Turkey in the case of Bosnia and Albania, appear to them as more honest, or at least straightforward, partners.
So what could a Western Balkans summit achieve, except highlight the mutual disenchantment? The Commission can put some money on the table, but it never reaches ordinary people. Leaders can speak about togetherness in a better future. But who believes that?
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Speaking of loopholes: the European Court of Auditors has condemned weak and poorly enforced policies that they say give farmers a “free pass” to abuse water use. Although farmers have made gains in water efficiency, auditors concluded that the amount of water used by the industry is still “unsustainable”.
Still in court: The General Court of the EU has annulled two agreements between the EU and Morocco that applied to Western Sahara, a territory occupied by Morocco. The court ruled in favour of the Polisario Front, which had filed the complaint against the EU Commission, the Council, and Morocco.
And in another post-Brexit feud, London has granted licenses to fish in its territorial waters to only 12 small French boats out of 47 applications, which officials say is “fully in line” with trade agreements between the UK and the EU. But France’s maritime minister says the policy is unfair, and “French fishing should not be taken hostage by the British for political ends.”
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Look out for…
- The EESC holds the 8th Western Balkans Civil Society Forum in Skopje, focusing on enhancing the accession process.
- The Slovenian Presidency hosts the conference on “space for a green and digital recovery.”
- Vice-President for Democracy and Demography Dubravka Šuica participates in the Athens Democracy Forum.
- Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton visits South Korea to discuss digital and tech with officials and industry leaders.
Views are the author’s
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/ Alice Taylor]