Updated with Albanian prime minister’s reaction
Serbian President Aleksander Vučić has said that he and his Albanian and Macedonian counterparts will announce on Wednesday (22 June) at noon whether they will take part in an upcoming EU summit, set to have a big focus on enlargement.
The summit will take place in Brussels on 23-24 June, bringing together the bloc’s leaders and their Western Balkan counterparts. On the agenda will be a decision on whether Ukraine will get EU candidate status and potentially what is in store for Albania and North Macedonia’s accession path.
Taking to Twitter, Vučić tweeted that he had spoken with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovačevski about the summit.
“Following consultations with our governments and advisors, we have decided to announce our decision tomorrow at noon on whether or not we will attend this meeting,” he tweeted.
Skopje and Tirana’s EU path has been stalled for several years, previously over corruption, crime, and asylum issues, and now due to a Bulgarian veto on Skopje over cultural and historical issues.
Given the current problems in Sofia’s political landscape, including a scheduled no-confidence vote for the ruling party, it is unlikely they will lift the veto before the summit, despite some Western pressure.
The three countries are currently engaged in the ‘Open Balkan’ initiative, also known as the Mini-Schengen. It aims to facilitate the free movement of people, trade, and goods throughout member countries through a series of agreements and memorandums.
Currently, only Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia are members of the initiative. Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina have refused over fears it will upset their EU path, with the former also concerned over Serbia’s refusal to recognise its sovereignty.
Montenegro is an observer, but Prime Minister Dritan Abazović has given signals recently that the country may consider joining.
Politicians and civil society in the region have raised concerns about Serbia’s involvement and its perceived efforts to be the de facto leaders of the initiative.
This has been exacerbated further since Russia invaded Ukraine as Serbia remains the only country in Europe, aside from Belarus, that has not enacted EU sanctions. Furthermore, Vučić has been hesitant to outright condemn the war, and multiple pro-Russia rallies have been held in Belgrade.
The issue of Serbia and potential Russian influence in the region came to a head days before the last Open Balkan meeting. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had to cancel his visit to Belgrade after regional countries refused to let his plane transit their airspace.
Lavrov criticised the action and made several comments that were perceived to be in favour of the Open Balkan initiative while referring to the EU as ‘closed’.
This was seen in Albania, Kosovo, and North Macedonia as demonstrating Russian backing and support for the Open Balkan initiative. Concerns have also been raised that it could be used to evade Russian sanctions in the region.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi also attended the summit.
Asked by EURACTIV about the initiative’s possible link to Russia, a spokesperson for Varhelyi said, “We strongly underline with our partners the importance of implementing the sanctions and stopping any attempts to circumvent sanctions or to aid Russia by other means.”
The spokesperson added that Serbia is expected to align with EU sanctions and that the Open Balkan initiative should include all six countries.
“Successful regional economic integration will help to pave the way to a deeper economic integration with the EU single market and help reaching the ultimate goal, EU accession,” the spokesperson continued.
However, signals of discontent with the EU accession process were already apparent last week when Rama said he was not hopeful the summit could bring about an imminent start of EU talks.
“I have no expectations. I think nothing will happen. Albania and Northern Macedonia will not officially open membership talks,” he told the media.
Rama confirmed the news on Twitter, tweeting in English and attacking Bulgaria. Regarding the summit, he said”It seems that another “No, sorry!” is gonna be what we will hear at the end! The whole Union kidnapped by Bulgaria it is not a good spectacle to watch! What to do there?!”
This echoes his earlier criticisms against Sofia who he said are completely at fault for delaying the progress of both Albania and North Macedonia.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]