The EU keeps Western Balkans at bay as it fails to commit to an entry date for its southern neighbors

EU - Western Balkans Sofia Summit Family Photo
EU - Western Balkans Sofia Summit Family Photo

Sofia, Bulgaria, May 17 (Tirana Echo) – European Union leaders have failed to commit to a date for the Union’s further enlargement in Sofia, sending western Balkans leaders back home in utter disappointment.

The EU-Western Balkans summit which took take place in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia today was meant to inject new energy into the EU-Western Balkans relationship, with several countries hoping to get a clearer date for their membership into the EU.

It was the first summit of such proportions in 15 years, since the EU-Western Balkan summit in Thessaloniki in June 2003.

Serbia and Montenegro are already negotiating their membership chapters while Albania and Macedonia hope to formally open accession talks this June with an increasingly tired and skeptical block of EU members.

However, the joint declaration issued at the end of the summit failed to give a clear commitment, date or plan for membership. Instead it reaffirmed the EU’s commitment towards its Western Balkans partners and reconfirmed the region’s belonging to the European family, focusing instead on technical terms as perspective, connectivity and good neighborly relations.

Recalling the Thessaloniki Summit of 2003, the EU reaffirms its unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans. Building on the progress achieved so far, the Western Balkans partners have recommitted to the European perspective as their firm strategic choice, to reinforcing their efforts and mutual support.” – read the joint declaration after the summit.

Adding to frustrations, French President Emmanuel Macron who two days ago received Albanian prime minister Edi Rama in Paris, further dashed Balkan membership hopes after the summit in Sofia when he said that enlargement weakened Europe and that he is not in favor of future enlargement “before having made a real reform to allow a deepening and better functioning of the European Union”.

The Sofia Summit was meant to focus attention on a region where geo-strategic interests are clashing over the past few years with big players like Russia, China and Turkey competing with the EU on political and economical influence.

During a recent interview for Euractiv, Albania’s prime minister Edi Rama said the closing off of a European perspective for the region would leave a gap for Russian influence and Islamic radicalization, warning that Moscow’s alleged interference in Montenegro’s 2016 election could be repeated elsewhere in the Balkans, and urging the EU not to “leave a space for other countries to fill”.

The European Commission recently announced a strategy for the region that has a goal of offering membership to some states by 2025. It also recommended opening of membership talks with Albania and Macedonia, while Serbia and Montenegro are well ahead in their negotiating chapters.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the summit it was “in the interest of peace and security for all of us that we have a secure Western Balkans region that is developing well economically.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said that the summit “may be a symbolic act, but it can again trigger a little more dynamism. If there is no European perspective in the Balkans, then the Turkish influence and other influence becomes stronger and stronger. We don’t want that to happen.

EU leaders have told Balkan countries they need to get their act together before they can join the block, by tackling organized crime and corruption and strengthening their rule of law and judiciary systems.

The region’s accession is further hampered by inter-ethnic conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, conflicts between Serbia and Kosovo and an ongoing name dispute between Greece and Macedonia (FYROM).

The EU has told Serbia and Kosovo that it must settle their differences before either can be admitted to the bloc, while hopes Greece and Macedonia will find an agreement on a final name solution in coming months.

The European Council meets in June to decide on whether it should formally open accession talks with Albania and Macedonia, whose leaders hope to bring home something positive to their tired and frustrated local voters.

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