EU leaders made encouraging remarks about Western Balkans accession candidates at a summit in Brussels on December 13, but no progress was made towards membership.
Officials, including European Council President Charles Michel and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, reaffirmed the prospect of EU membership for countries in the region, at the same time emphasizing the need to reforms by aspiring members.
Michel said at the closing press conference that the event was an opportunity to “reaffirm with great political force that the destiny of the Western Balkans lies in the European Union”.
The adopted declaration “is the reaffirmation of the prospect of membership in the European Union for the six countries of the Western Balkans”, he told journalists.
Borrell argued that enlargement “must accelerate”, given the “difficult, demanding and dangerous environment” affecting both the EU and the Western Balkans.
Commitment to enlargement
THE declaration adopted on December 13 states: “The EU reaffirms its full and unequivocal commitment to the prospect of Western Balkans joining the European Union and calls for the acceleration of the accession process. »
The document also states that progress must be “based on credible partner-led reforms, fair and rigorous conditionality and the principle of own merit”.
In line with the new approach to enlargement outlined by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen earlier this year, when she announced the new growth plan for the region, the declaration speaks of preparing the ground for membership by providing “concrete benefits” to citizens. of the Western Balkan countries during the enlargement process. This includes the integration of countries in the region into the EU single market.
The document also emphasizes that “Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine poses fundamental security challenges.” “The EU remains committed to further strengthening cooperation with the Western Balkans on key security and defense issues, including at the operational level,” the document said.
At the same time, candidate and potential candidate countries should show their commitment to EU membership by carrying out reforms.
Speaking to journalists upon his arrival at the event, Michel stressed that enlargement is a process based on merit.
“We are assessing the situation with all Western Balkan countries based on a merit-based approach… and today is an opportunity to see that there is a strong determination to implement the necessary reforms . Today is once again an opportunity to provide political momentum and encourage countries to implement the necessary reforms.”
Both Michel and Borrell spoke of the importance for candidate countries to align with EU foreign and security policy. While most Western Balkan countries have joined Western sanctions against Russia, Serbia has refused to do so.
“We live in a difficult, demanding and dangerous environment, which affects the European Union, our neighborhood and the Western Balkans. That’s why I think we need to work in two directions,” Borrell said.
“First, obviously, enlargement must accelerate. Ultimately, it is our most important security guarantee and our most important way to become a partner. And secondly, from a foreign policy perspective, supporting those who are most aligned with our (common) foreign and security policy.”
Four of the six Western Balkan countries are already at the stage of accession negotiations, although the start of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia has been blocked by disputes with their EU member neighbors.
Currently, the government of North Macedonia is struggling to pass through parliament the constitutional changes demanded by Bulgaria.
The country’s Prime Minister, Dimitar Kovacevski, said on December 13 that despite the blockade imposed by the opposition, “the country’s pro-European government will not deviate from the European path because our only alternative is the EU “. He added that he hoped for further support from European leaders for North Macedonia’s path to union, according to a government statement.
Meanwhile, Greece threatened to halt Albania’s progress following the arrest of Greek-born mayor Fredi Beleri.
Among the other two states, Kosovo was unable to apply for candidate status because it is not recognized as an independent state by five EU members.
Bosnia was given the green light to become a candidate country last year, but is unlikely to get the green light to begin accession negotiations at the EU Council meeting later this week. when progress for Ukraine and Moldova will also be reviewed.
MEPs called for the start of EU accession negotiations with Bosnia, as well as Ukraine and Moldova, on December 13 at the EU Council on December 14-15.
However, it is currently expected that Bosnia will not receive the green light to begin EU accession negotiations, as it has not fulfilled the 14 key priorities set as a condition for moving forward .
Hungary, for its part, is blocking discussions on the start of accession negotiations with Ukraine, which would also block the start of negotiations with Moldova.