8th Dec 2021

EU enlargement still 'hopelessly stuck'

  • Skopje: Bulgarian veto holding up accession talks (Photo: Mike Norton)

North Macedonia and Albania have voiced dismay after Bulgaria upheld its veto on Western Balkans enlargement earlier this week.

"It's Europe's problem now. It failed to stop one country blocking the enlargement process because of a bilateral issue," North Macedonia's prime minister Zoran Zaev said in Skopje on Wednesday (23 June) after meeting Albanian prime minister Edi Rama.

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"Our position is clear - European integration cannot be held hostage by bilateral relations," Zaev added.

"This is a big disappointment and huge failure of the European Union, and a bad message to the whole region," Rama also said.

He compared the situation to a famous play by Irish writer and existentialist Samuel Beckett, called Waiting for Godot, in which the main character, Godot, never arrives.

"But contrary to Samuel Beckett's characters ... we are not really waiting, we are going forward, pushing and pushing," he said.

They spoke after EU affairs ministers discussed prospects for opening accession talks with the two countries in Luxembourg on Tuesday.

But Bulgaria refused to change its line - that North Macedonia must first formally admit that both its language and ethnic identity are really Bulgarian.

And Albania's fate is tied to the veto, amid earlier plans for both countries to proceed in parallel.

"Unfortunately, we don't have any progress. Bulgaria fully supports the Euro-integration of North Macedonia and Albania, but not without conditions," a Bulgarian diplomat told EUobserver.

"We insist that the implementation of the Neighbourhood Agreement by North Macedonia be included in the future negotiation framework for Skopje's accession to the EU," he added, referring to an agreement on the cultural dispute.

"We are open for constructive dialogue with the next Slovenian presidency to find a positive solution," he added, as Ljubljana prepares to take over the EU chairmanship in July.

"As far as I understand, 26 member states tried to give arguments against the Bulgarian veto, but with no success," a North Macedonian diplomat said.

Portugal, which currently holds the EU presidency, also held a meeting with Serbian prime minister Ana Brnabić earlier on Monday in which Brnabić called for opening new chapters in its ongoing accession talks.

But Serbia, as well as Kosovo's EU future, is tied to their future agreement on normalising relations.

Kosovo prime minister Albin Kurti met with French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Wednesday and Macron urged "Kosovo and Serbia to act as Europeans and engage in reaching an agreement and finding a compromise".

But the first and only time Kurti met with Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić, on 16 June, did not go well.

"He [Kurti] wanted to hear when we will recognise an independent Kosovo ... and I said: 'Never'," Vučić said at the time.

Meanwhile, Denmark, France, and the Netherlands are continuing to veto EU visa-free travel for Kosovo even though it has met all the conditions set out by the European Commission, EU officials said.

And if the EU, along with Bulgaria, was hoping for breakthroughs under Slovenia's leadership, its hopes might well be dashed.

The only contribution the nationalist-populist Slovenian leader Janez Janša made to the enlargement process so far was to circulate an informal paper calling for the break-up of Bosnia, before disowning the plan, when it emerged the rest of the EU, as well as the US, thought it risked reigniting war.

Speaking to EUobserver in a recent interview, Robert Cooper, a retired EU diplomat, said: "The most important strategic act the EU did was the grand enlargement of 2004. The most important thing it could do now would be to get serious about enlargement again in the Western Balkans".

But speaking about the process as it looks today, it was "hopelessly stuck", the North Macedonian diplomat said.


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