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28th Nov 2022

Enlargement in limbo despite EU-Western Balkans summit

  • National elections and immigration fears in EU augur badly for Western Balkans (Photo: euoparl.europa.eu)
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EU leaders are planning to repeat old promises to Western Balkan states at an upcoming summit, but enlargement is going nowhere for now.

"The EU reaffirms its unequivocal support to the European perspective of the Western Balkans ... which is in our mutual strategic interest and remains our shared strategic choice," the EU is planning to say in Brdo, Slovenia, on 6 October, according to a draft declaration seen by EUobserver.

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It speaks of taking forward "the region's political, economic, and social transformation".

"The EU and the Western Balkans need to work together to face generation-defining tasks," it adds.

It is to be signed by the 27 EU leaders and six Western Balkan ones in what the Slovenian EU presidency sees as its flagship event on enlargement.

It also proposes "holding of EU-Western Balkans summits as regular events", with the next one pencilled in for late 2022.

But despite the fanfare, few expect any movement this year on the main obstacles to progress.

The elephant in the room in Brdo will be Bulgaria's ongoing veto on opening North Macedonia accession talks.

The draft EU declaration says: "Implementing ... the Treaty on Good Neighbourly Relations with Bulgaria remains important".

But this hardly sums up the ugliness of the situation.

North Macedonia changed its name to please Greece and met EU conditions for opening talks. But Bulgaria then vetoed it over a treaty on "neighbourly relations", which tries to force North Macedonia into saying its language and identity are historically Bulgarian.

And with Bulgarian elections coming up in November, Sofia is unlikely to climb down for now.

"Frankly speaking, we don't expect any decision [on the Bulgaria veto] before the summit. Because of the coming general elections in Bulgaria ... there's not a lot of time for negotiations," an EU diplomat said.

EU leaders also plan to say in Brdo they "expect concrete progress by the two parties [Kosovo and Serbia] on full normalisation of relations between them, which is critical for the stability and development of the whole region".

But the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue is all-but on hold.

Deputies met for technical talks in Brussels in September, but Kosovar prime minister Albin Kurti and Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić could not agree to sit down together.

Meanwhile, people in Kosovo have been holding their breath for visa-free travel ever since they met EU conditions in 2018.

But Denmark, France, and the Netherlands do not want to go ahead and the draft Brdo declaration did not mention visas.

It also did not mention opening any new chapters in accession talks with Montenegro or Serbia.

It spoke, instead, about keeping refugees out of the EU, evoking a political climate which augurs badly for both visa perks and enlargement more broadly speaking.

EU leaders planned to call for enhanced returns and readmission procedures for asylum seekers.

They also planned to voice fears of a potential Afghan refugee crisis.

"Given the seriousness of the situation in Afghanistan, the EU is ready to work closely with all its partners, including the Western Balkans, to tackle the evolving challenges," the draft, which was dated 6 September, said.

EU elections

And with immigration also a hot topic in upcoming German and French elections, some commentators did not expect any real progress on enlargement until after the French vote in April 2022.

"These are not cases to which Western Balkan countries can find solutions on their own," Adrian Arifaj, a former Kosovo government aide who is now editor of the demokracia.com news website in Pristina, told EUobserver, referring to the Bulgaria veto and the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.

"France and Germany have traditionally been the engines of change in the Western Balkans, but they'll be preoccupied with national elections," he said.

"The Afghan crisis will give a push to all those politicians in the EU who are against immigration and who play with such issues for their own goals," he added.

"The presidential elections are a priority for France next year and they will not have much time for us [before then]," a North Macedonian source also said.

Skopje believes France and Germany support opening EU accession talks in the long term.

"The entire German political class supports our demand for negotiations ... I think that just the [far-right] AfD [party] is against it," the source noted.

But the source added: "This [Brdo] summit will not be dedicated to enlargement. Rather, we expect a commitment from the EU for an economic recovery plan for the Western Balkans".

Damp squib?

Recent events in Montenegro, which saw violent protests over the reform of the Serb Orthodox Church, involved the hidden hand of Russia and showed how foreign enemies were taking advantage of the EU's absence, Kosovo's Arifaj said.

The draft Brdo declaration also spoke of the need to fight "disinformation and other hybrid threats, originating in particular from third-state actors seeking to undermine the region's European perspective".

It urged Western Balkan states to trumpet the "unprecedented scale" of EU financial support to the region in their government communications.

This included €30bn of spending in the 2021 to 2027 period and €3.3bn of pandemic relief.

But with no progress on any of the big-ticket items, the Brdo summit risked being a "damp squib" by delivering on trivial things only, such as a deal on lower phone-roaming costs, an EU official said.

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