Six Balkan states make slow, sure progress toward EU membership

European Union leaders met in Slovenia on Wednesday to reaffirm the prospect of the EU expanding to include six Balkan countries. While the idea has met some resistance, it has also fueled political and economic reform in the region and kept tensions in check. 

Darko Bandic/AP
Slovenia's Prime Minister Janez Jansa (center), Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama (left), and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte stand for a picture during arrivals for an EU summit at the Brdo Congress Center in Kranj, Slovenia, Oct. 6, 2021.

European Union leaders gathered Wednesday to reassure six countries in the Balkans region that they could join the trading bloc one day if they meet its standards, but the presidents and prime ministers are unlikely to give any signal about when the nations might advance in their quests.

Despite years of talk about the “European perspective” of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia, the EU has seen its progress on admitting them stall. Albania and North Macedonia have met the criteria to start talks, but all 27 countries must agree unanimously for the process to move forward.

The latest hold-up focuses on Albania and North Macedonia. Those countries have fulfilled the criteria for beginning entry talks, but EU member Bulgaria opposes North Macedonia’s inclusion because of a dispute over language and national identity.

The head of the EU’s executive arm, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, braved the terrible weather outside Brdo Castle, a Renaissance-style fortified palace in Slovenia, to reiterate her message that the sextet of countries belong in the EU.

“We want them in the European Union, we are one European family,” she said. “We share the same history, we share the same values, and I’m deeply convinced we share the same destiny too.”

Slovenia, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, backs its Balkans neighbors’ EU membership hopes. Croatia was the last country admitted into the EU, in 2013.

EU membership is based on a candidate’s progress in areas such as respect for the rule of law and democratic standards, and the implementation of specific socio-economic reforms.

The six are at different stages on the EU membership path. Montenegro and Serbia are the most advanced, having opened formal accession talks years ago. Albania and North Macedonia are awaiting the official opening of negotiations, and Kosovo and Bosnia are potential candidates.

“I know that still work has to be done, for example, on the rule of law, on the judiciary, on the freedom of the media, to name some. But I think we should also acknowledge the effort that has been done in the past and the progress that has been done,” Ms. von der Leyen said.

According to a draft of the statement they are set to issue later, the EU leaders will reaffirm a “commitment to the enlargement process” in general, but progress will be “based upon credible reforms by partners, fair and rigorous conditionality, and the principle of own merits.”

The draft, which was seen by The Associated Press, also underlines “the importance that the EU can maintain and deepen its own development, ensuring its capacity to integrate new members.”

France insisted two years ago that the functioning and decision-making of the EU should be revamped before new members are admitted.

The prospect of EU membership has served as a powerful driver of political and economic reform in the Balkans and has sometimes helped to keep a lid on tensions in a region that was torn apart by war in the 1990s.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic told Serbian media that Slovenia proposed before the meeting that all Western Balkan nations should become members by 2030 but several existing member countries opposed the idea.

“We don’t have any illusions about a quick entry into the EU,” Mr. Vucic said, adding that the matter was becoming “a political question.”

Addressing the widespread belief that his country has been forging closer ties with Russia and China instead of working on EU membership criteria, he said, “Serbian citizens … don’t want that our relations with Russia and China deteriorate.’

Despite the lack of progress, Ms. von der Leyen praised the bloc’s effort to invest 30 billion euros ($34.7 billion) in the Balkans over the next seven years to support the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and to accelerate the transition to renewable energy.

“It is very important to make clear to the Western Balkans countries how much we care about them and that we are their favorite partner,” Ms. von der Leyen said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writers Lorne Cook in Brussels, Belgium and Dusan Stojanovic in Brdo Castle, Slovenia contributed to this story.

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