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EU-Balkans Summit: no timetable set for Western Balkans accession

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On October 6, Slovenia hosted a summit between the EU and Western Balkan states. The EU-27 met its counterparts (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo) in the sumptuous Renaissance setting of Brdo Castle, 30 kilometers north of the capital, Ljubljana. Despite calls from a minority of heads of state and government, there has been no sign of progress on the sensitive issue of enlargement. The accession of these countries to the European Union is still not unanimous among the 27 EU member states.

During her latest tour of the Balkans three weeks ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the integration of the peninsula was of “geostrategic” importance. On the eve of the summit, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz supported Slovenia’s goal of integrating the countries in this area into the EU by 2030.

However, the unanimity required to begin the difficult negotiations is still far away, even for the countries most advanced in the accession process, Albania and North Macedonia. Bulgaria, already an EU member, opposes North Macedonia’s membership due to linguistic and cultural differences. Since the fall of Yugoslavia, Sofia has rejected the concept of a Macedonian language, insisting that it was a Bulgarian dialect, and condemned the artificial construction of a separate national identity.

The reluctance of other countries to join quickly is of a different nature. France and the Netherlands believe that previous enlargements (Bulgaria and Romania in 2007) have led to changes which must first be digested before the next enlargement cycle. The EU-27 also demands that all necessary prior guarantees be provided regarding the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption in these countries. Although freedom of the press is a condition of membership, the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged the EU to make “support for investigative and professional journalism” a key issue at the summit.

Even if the 27 of the EU have not met since June, the theme of the integration of the Western Balkans competes with other major priorities in the run-up to the French presidency of the EU in the first half of 2022 On the eve of the summit, a working group will take place, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, called for “a strategic discussion on the role of the Union on the international scene” in his letter of invitation to the summit EU-Balkans, citing “recent developments in Afghanistan”. “, the announcement of the AUKUS pact between the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, which aroused the anger of Paris.

The Western Balkans remain at the center of an international game of influence in which Europeans seek to maintain their domination. Consequently, the importance of reaffirming a “European perspective” at the summit was not an exaggeration. Faced with increasingly frequent incursions by China, Russia and Turkey into this European region, the EU has promised aid of 30 billion Euro Economic and Investment Plan for 2021-2027, as well as increased cooperation, in particular to deal with the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But there is no question of opening the borders. In the absence of progress on this issue, Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia have decided to create their own free movement zone (“The Balkans are open”) from January 1, 2023.”We start do today in the region what we will do tomorrow in the EU,” said Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama when signing the agreement last July.

This initiative, launched in 2019 under the name “Mini-Schengen” and based on an idea from the 1990s, does not have the support of the entire peninsular region, which remains deeply divided over this project. If Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro do not refuse to be part of it and are open to discussions, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, who took office in 2020, for his part accuses Serbia of relying on this project to recreate “a fourth Yugoslavia”

Tensions between Balkan countries continue to pose an obstacle to European integration. The issue of travel between Kosovo and Serbia has been a source of concern since the end of September. Two weeks of escalation followed Kosovo’s decision to ban cars with Serbian license plates from entering its territory, in response to Serbia’s long-standing ban on allowing vehicles to operate in the opposite direction.

In response to Kosovo police mobilizing to block the road, Kosovo Serbs blocked roads leading to their towns and villages, and Serbia deployed tanks and the air force near the border. By Sunday, October 3, the conflict appeared to be over and the roads were reopened. However, the tone was set three days before the EU-Balkans summit.

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