The European Union reaffirmed its commitment to accept all six Western Balkan countries at the EU-Western Balkans summit held in Sofia on May 17, the union’s President Donald Tusk said.
The summit, the first to be held for fifteen years, has gathered together the leaders of the six countries and the EU leaders, with the aim of showing the EU’s commitment to the region, which has been neglected for years, opening the door for more influence from Russia and Turkey.
“I don’t see any other future for the Western Balkans than the EU. There’s no other alternative. There is no “plan B”. The Western Balkans are an integral part of Europe and they belong to our community,” Tusk said at a press conference following the summit and the signing of a joint declaration.
The EU declaration reaffirmed the unequivocal support for the European perspective of the six countries and vowed to substantially enhance "connectivity in all its dimensions: transport, energy, digital, economic, and human”.
“To avoid any confusion, let me be very clear – the connectivity agenda is neither an alternative nor substitute of the future enlargement. It is a way to use the time between today and tomorrow more effectively than before,” Tusk said at the press conference.
New impetus for enlargement
The European Commission adopted in February a new enlargement strategy for the Western Balkans, setting 2025 as the target for Serbia and Montenegro to become members.
In April, the EU recommended launch of accession talks with Albania and Macedonia. Bosnia is still waiting to get an official candidate status, while Kosovo must first resolve its dispute with Serbia.
Boyko Borissov, prime minister of Bulgaria, stressed that the EU should negotiate with the Western Balkan countries, otherwise it will leave them to other geopolitical players, an apparent reference to the increasing influence of Russia in some of the countries.
A similar statement was made by Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who said that communications with the six countries should remain open, as otherwise "other influences" will increase.
However, at least one rift among EU leaders became apparent in advance of and during the summit. Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy refused to attend the summit as his country does not recognise Kosovo’s independence and fears separatism on its own soil with the Catalan crisis. However, he came to a two-day visit to Bulgaria and did attend an informal dinner of the EU and Western Balkans leaders on May 16.
And there was more positive news concerning the long-running dispute between Macedonia and Greece that for decades has blocked the former’s EU perspective.
The summit provided a floor to the leaders of the two countries to once again discuss their long-standing dispute over Macedonia’s name. Alexis Tsipras of Greece and Zoran Zaev of Macedonia reportedly made some progress in the negotiations. According to Zaev, the two countries could reach an agreement before EU’s summit in June, while his Greek colleague was more cautious and said that the two sides were not yet in position to announce an agreement.
"I believe we have covered a major part of the distance, but there is still distance to cover," Tsipras told a press conference.
Two other aspiring members – Serbia and Kosovo – were also urged to settle their differences in order to join the bloc.
Race to catch up
The six Western Balkan countries — Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia — are at different stages of the EU integration processes, with only Montenegro and Serbia having already started accession negotiations and being told that could actually join the bloc in 2025 or shortly after that.
While thorny political disputes like those between Macedonia and Greece or Serbia and Kosovo will need to be resolved before the relevant countries can join the EU, other challenges also lie ahead, stresses a report from the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (wiiw).
Economic development and connectivity in the six Western Balkan countries aiming to join the EU is hamstrung by intra-regional political conflicts,” says the report.
“In addition, the six countries must tackle their governance and infrastructure deficits, as well as expanding their industrial bases, in order to drive sustained economic convergence and meet EU economic accession criteria.”
And while the more concrete prospects of accession for most of the countries from the region laid out in the new enlargement strategy could spur on governments in the Western Balkans to address these issues, wiiw warns of other barriers that could hold back accession. “These include less enthusiasm for accession in Western Europe, potential interference by third parties, and conflicts between Western Balkan states and current EU members,” its analysts say. We are cautiously optimistic about a solution to the Greece-Macedonia name dispute, but the Spanish position on Kosovo, for example, looks like a major obstacle.”
The EU plans to hold another summit with the Western Balkans in two years time in Croatia.