Just months after Ukraine and Moldova applied to become EU candidates as Russia invaded Ukraine, the European Council agreed to grant the countries EU candidate status. Meanwhile, the Western Balkans have waited for years and even decades to be granted that status, but the progress is slow - to the frustration of the countries’ leaders.
Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia initially threatened to boycott the European Council summit two days before it was meant to take place. Bulgaria is blocking North Macedonia’s accession negotiations over language and cultural issues.
On Friday afternoon, Bulgaria's parliament voted to lift its veto on North Macedonia's accession. The European Council also emphasises that the EU is “unequivocally in favour of the integration of the Western Balkans into the European Union”.
Positions of the Western Balkans
The accession process with the six Western Balkans differs per country. Serbia has met one of the EU’s main demands by cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). However, since negotiations started in 2014, the EU has seen little progress on the rule of law and press freedom.
Montenegro, which applied for candidate status in 2010, appears to be the closest to EU membership as the EU is positive about the democracy’s development. In addition, recently appointed Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic also pledged to stop issuing “golden passports”.
North Macedonia’s negotiation talks are severely impacted by neighbouring countries. Greece had blocked talks for years over a name dispute – as Macedonia is also a northern region of Greece – which led North Macedonia to resolve the issue by changing its official name in 2018. Recently, Bulgaria was continuing to block the negotiations over historical and cultural objections.
Meanwhile, the EU is positive about Albania’s democratic development and reduction in crime, though economic instability and corruption are still prevalent.
For Bosnia and Herzegovina is to become an official candidate for membership, the constitution must be fundamentally changed, as Bosnia has a sever distinction between its Bosnian-Croatian and its Serb part.
Recent development in Bosnia and Herzegovina has plunged the country into a constitutional crisis which threatens not only its territorial integrity but also its European perspective.
Kosovo was also presented with potential candidacy in 2008 and is backed by the German and Italian leaders, but countries such as Greece and Spain are yet to formally recognise the country's independence.
As the three countries ended up joining Thursday’s summit after all, there were glimmers of hope that leaders of the Western Balkans and the EU would come to a compromise concerning Bulgaria’s blocking of North Macedonia’s EU accession, but the country leaders were disappointed and expressed their frustration in a joint press conference.
“I will be straightforward,” Prime Minister Dimitar Kovačevski of North Macedonia said. “What is happening now is a serious problem and a serious blow to the credibility of the European Union.”
In addition, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama expressed his anger towards Bulgaria and the EU enlargement process. “Bulgaria is a disgrace, but it’s not simply Bulgaria,” he said. “The reason is the crooked spirit of the enlargement — its totally crooked spirit.” He added that Bulgaria had rendered the EU “impotent”.
Bulgaria also faced internal issues, as the country’s Prime Minister Kiril Petkov lost a no-confidence vote before heading into the meeting, making him the country’s outgoing leader.
“I will say that I promised the Bulgarian people that this decision must be made by the Bulgarian parliament,” Petkov said. “Only the Bulgarian parliament is the institution with the utmost representation. I will always keep my word.”
French President Emmanuel Macron meanwhile said he considers an agreement between Skopje and Sofia “a little too soon”, while Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte remained hopeful: “Nothing is ever easy on the Balkans, but here I think that you might see a 50, 60% chance of a breakthrough next week.”
“My country North Macedonia and the Republic of Albania, but also the region, we can’t be stuck in this situation because a single country simply fails to coordinate and ensure the unblocking of a European path for us,” Kovačevski said.