Frustrated Balkans seek reassurance at EU summit

Brdo Castle (Slovenia) (AFP) –

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Western Balkan countries can expect reassurances but no concrete progress on their stalled bids for European Union membership when EU leaders meet Wednesday.

The 27-nation club is set to talk up economic support worth billions of euros for its eastern neighbours at a summit at Brdo castle, in Slovenia, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency.

Brussels is keen to show it remains the strategic region's best hope.

But there will be no breakthroughs at the meeting with the leaders of Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo on the tortuous path towards membership.

And concern is growing that frustration at years of waiting in vain for the EU's doors to open could push some candidate countries closer to Russia and China.

"It's a good moment for us to be assertive, and make clear that the European Union continues to be the region's biggest donor," an EU official said.

"The European Union continues to be the region's main investor, and the European Union continues to be the closest trading partner."

- 'Wedding' no-show -

The EU's push for enlargement -- once a key policy for the bloc -- has ground to a halt in recent years. Some richer member nations fear sparking a new wave of migration and some applicants are struggling with the required reforms.

France, Denmark and the Netherlands initially blocked accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia in 2019.

Bulgaria has since become the main obstacle to progress, refusing to let North Macedonia start the process because of a dispute over history and language.

During a tour of the region last week, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said she hoped to see talks open with North Macedonia and Albania this year, after elections in Bulgaria.

'We have prepared ourselves for a wedding several times... but the guests did not show up,' said Rama
'We have prepared ourselves for a wedding several times... but the guests did not show up,' said Rama Armend NIMANI AFP

"We have prepared ourselves for a wedding several times... but the guests did not show up," Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama responded.

"We are no longer preparing for the wedding, but we continue to show our love."

It was only after fierce haggling that EU members agreed say the bloc "reconfirms its commitment to the enlargement process" in a draft final statement for the summit seen by AFP.

But diplomats rejected a demand by Slovenia to commit to absorbing the aspirants by 2030.

- China, Russia, waiting in the wings -

As efforts to integrate the Western Balkans have hit a wall, the EU has become increasingly concerned over the inroads being made by Moscow and Beijing, which have sent millions of coronavirus vaccines to the region.

Moscow has deep cultural ties with fellow Orthodox nations such as Serbia while Beijing has extended major loans in the region, including a controversial $1 billion for a road, which Montenegro is struggling to pay off.

The EU in response is touting an economic deal it says could provide an "unprecedented" package of up to 30 billion euros ($35 billion) to the region.

The EU is touting an economic deal it says could provide up to 30 billion euros to the region
The EU is touting an economic deal it says could provide up to 30 billion euros to the region Jure Makovec AFP

Officials also promise to deliver "tangible" results for the people in the Balkans, such as bolstering vaccine rates to match EU levels this year and ending phone roaming charges.

Brussels scored a minor diplomatic victory in the run-up to the summit by mediating a deal to ease a flare-up in tensions between Serbia and Kosovo over car licence plates.

The former foes were at loggerheads for nearly two weeks after Kosovo banned cars with Serbian registration plates from entering its territory.

The latest row between Serbia and ethnic-Albanian majority Kosovo, that involves the sensitive issue of Kosovo's Serb minority, was the worst in years.

Kosovo proclaimed independence from Serbia in 2008, a decade after a war between independence-seeking ethnic Albanian guerrillas and Serbian forces.

EU-brokered dialogue between the two Balkans neighbours, launched a decade ago, has so far failed to achieve normalisation of their ties.