Frustration and disappointment in Western Balkans: "EU's behaviour is shameful and disgraceful"
The war-torn Ukraine has been granted EU candidacy status. Dispensing with previous practice, Brussels accelerated the pace of awarding the status to Kiev. Ukrainians deserve the status as they are ready to die for the protection of European values, Ursula von der Leyen said. Moldova has also been granted EU candidate status, but Georgia and Bosnia still have to qualify for candidacy and meet further requirements. Meanwhile, the EU again reaffirmed the long-standing EU enlargement perspective for Western Balkan countries.
The European Council president announced the EU’s decision to grant candidacy status to Ukraine and Moldova on Twitter. This is a historic moment, today marks a crucial step on your path towards the EU, Charles Michel wrote on social media.
„Congratulations to President Volodymyr Zelensky and President Maia Sandu and the people of Ukraine and Moldova. Our future is together,” Charles Michel concluded his entry.
Ukraine’s president hailed the European Union’s move and described the decision by the 27 member states as unique and historical. Moldova’s president also attributed great importance to the decision, but also noted that she was aware that a great deal of work and effort were required from her country. Candidacy does not automatically mean membership, nor does it mean that accession talks between Brussels and the candidate country will begin immediately.
Ms Sandu expressed hope that prospective EU membership would bring more welfare, more opportunities and more order to Moldova.
Moldova and Ukraine are pleased while Georgia still has to qualify for candidacy. „The European Commission decided to recognise the European perspective of Georgia and is ready to grant candidate status once the outstanding priorities are addressed,” Charles Michel posted on Twitter.
„A historic moment in EU-Georgia relations: Georgia’s future lies within the EU,” the European Council president wrote.
EU membership candidacy is much coveted by Georgians. A few days ago, tens of thousands of people rallied in the country’s capital to demonstrate for Georgia’s candidacy and to prove the commitment of the Georgian people to their European choice and to Western values, the organisers emphasized.
„Freedom, peace, sustainable economic development, protection of human rights and justice are values that unite us all and would be guaranteed by integration into the European Union,”
the organisers wrote in their statement.
Enlargement policy once again in the spotlight
Currently, there are seven recognised candidates for EU membership: Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia, Turkey, Ukraine and Moldova. Georgia has now joined Kosovo and Bosnia Herzegovina, the two countries that have been recognised as so-called potential candidates.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was one of the most vocal advocates of Ukraine’s candidacy.
We all know that Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective. We want them to live with us for the European dream,” she said.
The EC president belongs to the radical group of Brussels bureaucracy which aims to bring Russia to its knees, and her approach and policies must be interpreted with that in mind, former Serbian diplomat Zoran Milivojevic said, adding that supporting the EU membership of Ukraine and Moldova had in fact geopolitical and geostrategic reasons. He seemed to imply that the EU supports the candidacy of the two countries as part of the fight against Russia.
„It is clear that these states have gained an advantage compared to the others because they are in the front line of the fight against Russia. It is also visible that geostrategic interests are more important for Brussels than the current method of expansion and its underlying principles,”
the expert said. „Instead of the essence of EU policy and strategy, geopolitical solutions dictated from Washington are being accepted today”, Milivojevic added.
„The European Union, above all else, is an economic project. Politics should be in the background. Politics should be treated as an expression of economy and economic strategies, and not as a dominant factor. In that sense, the EU has diverged from the line of its strategic philosophy and ideology as a peace and economic project”, he said.
„This sends a clear message that the West wants to determine future borders with Russia and to make it known that it sees Ukraine and Moldova as parts of its own sphere of interest,” Milivojevic added.
He remarked that Ukraine is not the first such country in the history of the EU. The situation was the same when Romania and Bulgaria were admitted, even though everybody knew that those countries were not ready for EU membership.
Western Balkan countries were left empty-handed
The countries of the Western Balkans were again unable to take concrete steps on their way to the EU. Albania and North Macedonia could not begin accession negotiations, whereas Serbia could not open a new cluster. The leaders of the states held a press conference in Brussels.
Belgrade ensured Macedonia and Albania of its strong support for the beginning of accession negotiations, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said. North Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski voiced a sharp criticism of Brussels. The EU should fulfil its promises made earlier, and then set new conditions. Albanian Premier Edi Rama expressed his regret that his country is still treated as a guest in Europe.
Aleksandar Vucic said North Macedonians and Albanians deserved to start accession talks, but regretted that nothing had happened. He underlined that both countries met the necessary conditions for joining the EU. Speaking about Serbia’s relations with the EU, he said that in the first 4 months of the year, trade volume between Serbia and the EU has increased by 30 per cent. Mr Vucic also expressed his gratitude for the support of the EU leaders in the integration of Serbia, adding that Belgrade once again felt the pressure because it has not introduced sanctions against Moscow. Serbia will not be trying to prove to anyone why it is doing what it is doing, the country is pursuing its own interests, President Vucic said.
„According to the statistics I have received, 2,629 articles have been published in the European press about Serbia being a threat to the entire region after the Russian attack on Ukraine, and a threat to Bosnia and Kosovo. Well, in light of this nothing happened,”
the Serbian president said, adding that despite this, no one had apologised to the Serbs. Mr Vucic also praised the Open Balkans initiative in Brussels, saying that the cooperation between Albania, Serbia and North Macedonia could bring a lot of benefits to the region. This cooperation was set up in a bid to jointly represent the interests of the region. However, he denied allegations that the initiative was the idea of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban or Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying that he had never even discussed the topic with Putin.
Rama: We will not be waiting for Godot
The Albanian premier regretted the situation in the EU and expressed hope that the Western Balkan countries could help Brussels. Tirana has been waiting for eight years to get a date for the start of accession negotiations, but to no avail, Mr Rama said. Bulgaria is the obstacle at the moment, but the roots of the problem go deeper than that; it is more a question of enlargement fatigue in the EU, the Albanian PM added.
„We will not be waiting for Godot. I feel very sorry for people who were optimistic before. I didn’t think anything will change. We must start to revitalise the spirit of Europe in the region,”
PM Rama said, expressing his concern that neither the pandemic nor the war has been able to unite European states. The Albanian leader expressed his support for Emmanuel Macron’s idea of creating a European Political Community. This association would include countries that think along similar lines. It is not conditional on EU membership, so it could even include the UK, which has left the EU. V4NA also reported about the idea earlier. It’s fine if we live on different floors in the house of Europe, but at least we should be able to meet in the living room, Edi Rama said.
„A historic day, but in a negative context.” said the Albanian premier in reaction to the decision in Brussels, adding that „the EU’s behaviour is shameful and a disgrace. This is nothing more than empty promises for enlargement.”
North Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski criticised the EU for not making the progress they had hoped for, saying „what has happened is a serious blow to the EU’s credibility.” He said that neither his country nor Albania’s accession should be delayed because of opposition from only one EU country, Bulgaria.
The day after the Western Balkans-EU summit, the Bulgarian parliament gave the green light to the government to withdraw its veto on the opening of accession negotiations with Northern Macedonia. Under this decision, Sofia accepts the French president’s proposal for a settlement. The decision means that Bulgarians can no longer be an obstacle to the start of accession negotiations between North Macedonia, Albania and Brussels. In the following months, this could bring an end to the political blockade in place since November 2020.
Analyst: EU lacks strategy for the Western Balkans
Srdan Graovac, an analyst at the Serbian Centre for Social Stability, says it is clear that the EU has no strategy for the Western Balkans, and that there is chaos on the issue.
„Brussels has absolutely no idea what to do with this region. There is no strategy, and decisions are made ad hoc, depending on the circumstances. The EU is increasingly looking like a ship in a stormy sea, at the mercy of the waves, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left. What is currently happening with Ukraine’s European integration proves that the speed of accession depends on a series of political decisions, not on the fulfilment of predefined criteria.
In response, the participants of the Open Balkans initiative has decided to jointly determine whether or not to attend the Brussels summit at all, and then took joint action while there. Mr Graovac says this is very important for the states in the region. This proves, he said, that Belgrade, Skopje and Tirana are not only cooperating on economic issues, but can also pursue common interests on political ones. This is also a warning to Brussels that the countries of the region cannot wait forever and do not want to depend on the whim of the EU, but are taking control of their destiny into their own hands, the analyst stressed.
But what does it take to be an EU member?
This is the question that countries that have long been waiting for admission are seeking an answer to. These are mainly the Western Balkan states, which suffered so much in the 90s of the last century, and which see their future and peace in the EU after the end of the fratricidal war. Brussels’s primary expectation so far has been good neighbourly relations, and EU decision-makers have repeatedly said that they do not want to bring an existing conflict into the EU. That is why the Balkan countries have embraced the idea of peace and stability.
Reacting to Ukraine’s candidate status, the Serbian interior minister said that if the condition is to go to war with someone just to speed up EU integration, Serbia says thanks, but no thanks.
Source: Interior Ministry of Serbia
„The European Union has decided to stop pretending that the same rules apply to everyone who wants to join the organisation. Ukraine became a candidate despite not meeting the standards so carefully applied to the Balkan countries. It has overcome decades of pressure, blackmail and bureaucracy, has not had to take steps to fight corruption, meet the criteria for justice or economic reform, and does not have to negotiate cooperation with war crimes tribunals. Being at war was enough to qualify for membership. I dread to think what will be the condition for the conclusion of the procedure. I hope that Moldova did not have to promise war and that it was granted candidate status on its word of honour, without any combat obligation. If the decisive criterion for membership or for starting the accession process is that the country is at war, Serbia could have started negotiations in 1999. However, it seems that such rules do not apply to those bombed by NATO, to speed up EU accession a country needs to clash with Russia. Until yesterday, the EU was not a military alliance, nor was a state of war a precondition for starting accession negotiations, but now we see that it is crucial. If the condition for Serbia’s faster progress towards the European Union is to go to war with someone, then no thank you, it is not worth it. I wish Ukraine the best of luck. And for North Macedonia and Albania, I wish that they do not have to go to war with anyone to start negotiations for accession to the European Union,”
Serbian Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin said, reacting to the fact that Ukraine and Moldova have been granted candidacy status.
The Balkan states have chosen peaceful coexistence over the past two decades. Part of this was the Open Balkans initiative, involving Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia. The three countries are aiming to link up before the EU accession by allowing the free movement of people and goods on the basis of EU values. So by the time they become members of the bloc, they will learn to appreciate the importance of these. Concrete results are already visible, for example, the abolition of roaming charges or easier border crossing with an ID card.
However, these achievements seem to be dwarfed by the situation in Ukraine, and all attention is focused on the integration of Kyiv, instead of the Western Balkan states, Suzana Grubjesic, an expert from the Foreign Policy Centre in Belgrade, said in an interview with the Serbian daily Blic, adding that the EU’s focus is on Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. Becoming a candidate country, however, does not mean that the country will soon be a full member of the EU. Countries that have been waiting decades for integration are good examples of that.
Serbia between East and West
The process of Serbia’s EU accession has been dragging on for more than a decade. The country applied for EU membership in December 2009 and was granted candidate status in 2012. Initially, 35 accession chapters were defined, which have since been divided into clusters following the introduction of the new methodology. The revised methodology is designed to give impetus to the accession process and the implementation of reforms. More than half of the topics have already been opened.
Photo: President of Serbia
EU country reports on Serbia have not shown significant progress for years. The rule of law and the alleged lack of freedom of the press remain the most criticised, and the latest document has already set new conditions, namely mutual recognition on Kosovo and the introduction of sanctions against Russia. These are conditions that have not been mentioned before. However, there is hardly anything positive to be found in the document recently adopted by the EP’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, only the customary phrase returns: Serbia’s place is in the EU.
Since the escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Serbia has been under increasing pressure to break off good relations with Russia and introduce sanctions against Moscow. Belgrade is not willing to do this, saying that the country’s energy dependence and traditional friendship do not allow it.
Montenegro is mentioned along with Serbia on the road to the EU. The small Balkan country applied for membership in 2008 and became a candidate country in 2010. It could start accession negotiations, but ten years later it has still not been able to conclude them. It is still trying to meet Brussels’ expectations without a target date. Podgorica does not have many conflicts with neighbouring states, at least compared to the others. With just over 600 000 inhabitants, the mini state has a rapidly growing economy. Montenegro is also known to have officially adopted the euro as its currency since 2002, but it uses the European currency unilaterally, without the agreement of EU bodies. It also has a well-developed tourism industry, but many say its biggest flaw is its geographical location, as it tries to assert itself among Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, and Albanians.
Skopje meets the conditions just to face newer ones
Alongside Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia have been waiting for years in the EU’s antechamber. They could not even start their accession negotiations. Skopje had to meet EU conditions, then Greece made the country change its name, and most recently Bulgaria made demands that seemed impossible to meet. This stalemate has led to hundreds of thousands protesting in the country’s capital last weekend. The leader of the strongest local opposition party told the rally that accepting Bulgaria’s demands to include in the constitution the protection of the rights of the local Bulgarian minority would lead to assimilation.
The veteran candidate: Turkey
Turkey has been vocal about its desire to move closer to the European Union since the last century, when it was granted candidacy status following the Helsinki European Council in December 1999. However, the process grinded to a near halt before it had even started: it was only in December 2004 that the Council decided that Turkey sufficiently fulfilled the criteria for opening accession negotiations, which could only start after another year, in October 2005.
17 years have passed since then and Turkey is still not a member of the EU. What has this period been like? The first few years were a slow, „chapter-opening” period, peppered with the usual EU rhetoric: „new impetus for the accession process”, „more frequent and better structured meetings”, „higher level of dialogue” and so on. However, since 2017, Turkey has been the subject of serious criticism at European Council meetings, with Turkey engaging in persistent illegal activities in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean. The EU’s position is that Turkey has been carrying out drilling activities for hydrocarbons near Cyprus.
However, the official communication maintained the previous position that „the EU has a strategic interest in developing a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship with Turkey… the channels of communication between the EU and Turkey should remain open.”
In October last year, when the European Commission adopted its 2021 package of reports on EU enlargement, it was again underlined that Ankara is a key partner for the European Union in key areas such as migration, the fight against terrorism, the economy, trade, energy, and transport. At the same time, the state of the rule of law, fundamental rights and the independence of the judiciary have been sharply criticised. These have been reported to be in steady decline. The assessment states that „Turkey’s accession process has stalled due to serious democratic deficiencies.” They also made a statement that Ankara is „no longer serious” about implementing reforms.
Turkey’s accession to the EU would significantly increase and strengthen the EU’s defence. The Hungarian prime minister had already pointed this out earlier, highlighting the role of the protective ring provided by Turkey, especially in the context of migration, but he also considered cooperation with Ankara important from a healthcare, economic, and energy perspective.
Those not even candidates
Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for EU membership on 15 February 2016. Following a lengthy assessment of the situation, the Commission identified 14 key priorities in May 2019, that the country must implement in order to start EU accession negotiations. The rule of law and electoral reform, an end to the honouring of convicted war criminals – these are among the conditions the country should meet. The European Union, however, is not satisfied with Bosnia’s efforts:
„I also encourage Bosnia and Herzegovina to increase its alignment with common EU foreign and security decisions. I regret that the level of this coordination has decreased in the first months of this year. This is certainly not in line with the ambition of Bosnia to become a candidate for membership of the European Union,”
EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Josep Borrell said on his visit to Sarajevo last year.
The EU’s concern is partly due to the role of Milorad Dodik. The Serb member of the Bosnian state presidency, they say, „upsets the balance of the three nationalities and attempts to create a kind of separate Bosnian Serb institution” (Bosnia consists of two entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, made up of Bosnians and Croats, and the Republic of Serbia. The relations and the sensitive state apparatus were laid down in the Dayton Peace Treaty of 1995.)
Another potential candidate country is Kosovo, where the situation is even more complex than in Bosnia. Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008, but Serbia still considers it a southern province. Its independence is recognised by 22 of the 27 EU member states, which means that even within the EU there is not complete agreement. Pristina has so far only signed a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Brussels, with a formal application for accession expected by the end of the year.
„Europe is our destiny, Europe is our future,” Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti said recently.
Kosovo citizens are still required to have a visa to enter the EU.