17th Jan 2019

EU summit unlikely to see progress on Balkans enlargement

  • Macedonia, an EU candidate since 2005 – is ready to start accession negotiations as soon as possible. (Photo: European Commission)

EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday (19 June) will spend little time discussing enlargement of the bloc, and are not expected to do more than reaffirm western Balkan countries' "European perspective" – despite greater expectations from some of the EU hopefuls.

One such country – Macedonia, an EU candidate since 2005 – has lately been indicating its readiness to start accession negotiations as soon as possible.

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"We feel prepared ... to open accession negotiations over EU membership," the country's foreign minister Antonio Milososki said earlier this month.

Some EU states have adopted a cautious approach to Skopje's push, however.

"The way the elections in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia [FYROM] were carried have tempered the [enlargement] enthusiasm a little," a French diplomat said on Wednesday (18 June), referring to violent incidents that accompanied parliamentary elections in some parts of the country in early June.

"And the question of the relations between FYROM and Greece remains a serious obstacle," he added.

Athens has been refusing to recognise its neighbour's constitutional name - Republic of Macedonia - since the country declared independence in 1991, saying it implies territorial claims on a northern Greek province also called Macedonia.

As a result of the ongoing stalemate, Greece blocked a NATO invitation to Skopje in April. It has also indicated that it wants the "name issue" to be resolved before Macedonia is allowed any closer to the EU.

No starting of talks in 2008?

Nevertheless, both Macedonia and Slovenia, which currently holds the six-month rotating EU presidency, had expressed hopes Skopje could start accession talks - or be given a date to do so - in the course of this year.

That goal is also present in the draft conclusions prepared ahead of the summit.

The document - seen by EUobserver - reads: "The European Council is looking forward to the opening of the accession negotiations with FYROM by the end of this year."

Following objections from Athens however, this passage is very likely to be modified to reflect Greece's demands - or scrapped altogether.

"The Greek delegation has been clear: no agreement on the name [of Macedonia], no launching of EU talks," another diplomat said.

Macedonia had had high expectations on starting accession negotiations during Ljubljana's time at the EU helm, as Slovenia – which was part of the former Yugoslavia together with Macedonia – has made the Western Balkans' EU integration a priority of its presidency.

Moreover, not winning the announcement of a date now means that Skopje may not start negotiations this year at all, as the next EU presidency country, France, has explicitly taken Greece's side in the name row, and is not expected to put a particular emphasis on enlargement issues.

'Nothing extraordinary' on enlargement

According to the draft summit conclusions, EU leaders should more generally welcome progress made by the countries of the western Balkan region, encourage them to keep up reforms in key fields such as corruption or organised crime, and reaffirm their European perspective.

But there will be "nothing extraordinary on enlargement," in the final document, the French diplomat said.

EU presidency country Slovenia reportedly wanted the conclusions to be much more far-reaching, but had to lower its ambitions due to opposition from other member states.

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