In June, at a long-awaited EU-Balkans summit and at the European Council meeting, the European aspirations of the states in the Western Balkans were again thwarted, despite governments in the region emphasising the need to advance the enlargement process, particularly in light of the war in Ukraine. In the absence of a quicker EU integration process, some countries in the region also warned of potentially increasing Russian threats and the expansion of other external powers.
However, during both summits, EU leaders failed to break the stalemate over the Balkans’ stalled bid to join the EU while approving the concession of candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova. This latest move was supported in the region but was also viewed as an insult by many in the Balkans, an area in which many countries have been waiting for almost two decades to become members of the EU family.
Particularly worrisome is the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) which, since August 2021, has been rocked by the most severe political crisis in its recent history, and where national elections are scheduled for October this year. Under EU pressure, Bosnian leaders from all ethnic groups, including Bosnian Serb Milorad Dodik, the principal architect of the crisis, signed an agreement in June that guarantees the country’s functionality, integrity, and a clear path to the EU. The agreement stipulates that the Bosnian political leaders will collaborate to preserve a “peaceful, stable, sovereign and independent functional European state of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” to “conduct free and democratic elections,” and pass a series of laws on the judiciary, conflict of interest, and procurement as soon as possible.
With the agreement being signed, many in Sarajevo anticipated that BiH, still with a status of a potential candidate for the EU membership, will finally receive the candidate status at the summit. However, this did not happen at the 23-24 June European Council, although pressures were made by several EU countries, in particular by Slovenia, Croatia and Hungary. The Council merely stated that it “is ready to grant the status of candidate country” to BiH, delegating the Commission to “report” on the progress on critical priorities set in 2019.
No progress was made either in the negotiations with North Macedonia, a candidate country since 2005, and Albania (candidate since 2014). Since 2020, the Bulgarian veto against Skopje, based on long-running historical and linguistic disputes between the two countries, has remained the primary impediment to accession negotiations, with Sofia thwarting Macedonian aspirations, and Albanian aspirations as well, as the integration processes of the two countries are inextricably linked.
However, just after voting on a motion of no confidence against Petkov’s government – and when the European Council had already reached its conclusions – the Bulgarian Parliament unexpectedly accepted a resolution for lifting the veto after the GERB opposition party changed its attitude on the issue. This action could open the path for the resumption of negotiations in exchange for EU guarantees that North Macedonia will meet Bulgaria’s demands. On the other side, Dimitar Kovacevski, the Prime Minister of North Macedonia, dashed hopes for a swift resolution by stating that the plan was “unacceptable in its current form.”
Nevertheless, on June 30, French President Emmanuel Macron said that a compromise solution had been found for the European Union membership negotiation framework for North Macedonia, which would also involve Bulgaria.
No significant steps forward were undertaken concerning the accession negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro, nor towards removing the visa regime for Kosovo.
The lack of decisions at the summits in Brussels increased the frustration of local political leaders in the Balkans. “North Macedonia is a candidate for 17 years if I have not lost count, Albania eight, so welcome to Ukraine,” said Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama after the EU-Western Balkans leaders’ meeting of June 23, which also ended without any concrete results, but once again with EU leaders expressing their “unambiguous support for integrating the Western Balkans” in the Union. “It’s a disgrace that a NATO country, Bulgaria, kidnaps two other NATO countries, namely, Albania and North Macedonia, amid a hot war in Europe’s backyard with 26 other countries sitting still in a scary show of impotence,” Rama also underscored.
“What is happening now is a serious problem and serious blow to the credibility of the European Union; we are wasting precious time which we do not have at our disposal,” North Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski said. Kovacevski together with Rama and the Serbian President Vucic even threatened to boycott the EU-Balkans summit in Brussels as a protest for the lack of progress in the accession process. On the other side, several EU member states want the Balkans to focus first on the reforms requested by Brussels and to see a mutual recognition agreement between Serbia and Kosovo.
Despite the delays of the EU and the efforts of China and Russia to exert their influence in the Balkans, the public opinion in the region remains sincerely pro-European, particularly in Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia.
Journalist based in the Balkans since 2005, he covers Central- and Eastern Europe for a wide range of media outlets, including the Italian national news agency ANSA, and the dailies La Stampa and Il Piccolo.