*The European Union wants to show it still cares about the Balkans, but not everyone is feeling the love.
Brussels has been accused for years of not paying enough attention to the six Western Balkan countries that want to join the bloc. After taking office in 2014, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker declared the EU would not take in any new members during his five-year term.
In recent months, though, the EU has rediscovered an interest in the Balkans, after becoming alarmed by attempts from Russia to exert influence there and by deteriorating relations between some countries in a region that was engulfed in war just a couple of decades ago. Officials from Serbia and Montenegro will be in Brussels on Monday to discuss their path to the EU.
EU leaders have begun sending signals that the path to Brussels is still open. Juncker, in his State of the Union address in September, and French President Emmanuel Macron, in his big speech setting out his vision for the future of Europe, both stressed that the bloc has to be open to new members from the Western Balkans.
Juncker and European Parliament President Antonio Tajani are expected to visit the region early next year, according to spokespeople for both leaders. And Bulgaria has said it wants to make helping Western Balkan countries move toward membership a priority of its six-month presidency of the Council of the EU, which starts in January.
The Commission has named Serbia and Montenegro “frontrunners” and aims to have them as members by 2025, if not sooner.
Brussels does not envisage all six Western Balkan countries — Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia — joining the EU at the same time, if ever. Instead, the Commission has named Serbia and Montenegro “frontrunners” and aims to have them as members by 2025, if not sooner. Both countries are expected to open new chapters in their membership negotiations in Brussels on Monday.
The focus on these two countries has triggered alarm, confusion and anger among countries not included in the leading group.
Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj suggested Serbia was getting preferential treatment because it had played up the possibility of moving closer to its traditional ally, Russia.
“Belgrade has benefited a lot from playing the card of the alternative — and that’s Moscow, Russia … The message towards our region should be a clear one, not with double standards,” Haradinaj said in an interview during a recent visit to Brussels.
Some have accused the EU of giving Belgrade preferential treatment after it played up its ties to Moscow | Koca Sulejmanovic
Haradinaj, who said his government hoped to submit an application for EU membership in the second half of next year, declared that all Western Balkan countries should join the bloc at the same time. Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaçi has suggested the “frontrunner” strategy could be Islamophobic as it puts countries with substantial Muslim populations lower in the pecking order than two predominantly Orthodox Christian states. Other countries have been less critical but made clear the new strategy, at the very least, led to confusion.
Janina Suela, Albania’s ambassador to the EU, said Juncker’s signal to the region in his State of the Union speech was “very much appreciated” but the accompanying letter setting out the frontrunner strategy “caused some concerns.” “Seeing these two documents, we asked ‘What is this about?’ What we needed was clarification,” she said.
The Commission says that identifying Serbia and Montenegro as frontrunners simply reflects the fact they are the only two of the six countries to have started membership negotiations. But regional diplomats are concerned that the duo will now get the lion’s share of Brussels’ attention. The Commission’s work program for the coming year promises a strategy “for the EU accession of Serbia and Montenegro” but does not even mention the other Western Balkan aspirants.
“What we have is a kind of positive competition amongst them, they’re looking jealously on each other” — Johannes Hahn, European commissioner responsible for enlargement
“We don’t have a problem with mentioning these two countries that have already opened negotiations. We’ll have a problem if the strategy will be concentrated only on these two countries,” Suela said.
The plan even irritated one of the designated frontrunners, Montenegro. The nation of some 620,000 people sees itself far ahead of Serbia on the path to the EU and does not like the suggestion that it may have to wait for its larger neighbor to catch up. “We are in the process much longer than them and we are nearly closing the [negotiating] chapters when they are just beginning,” said Bojan Šarkić, Montenegro’s ambassador to the EU. Montenegrin officials even dislike Serbia being named first when the two countries are mentioned as frontrunners, feeling that this implies Belgrade is at the head of the queue. “Montenegro is the frontrunner,” Foreign Minister Andrija Pejović declared bluntly.
Defending the EU strategy, Johannes Hahn, the European commissioner responsible for enlargement, said it stimulated a healthy rivalry among countries to carry out the reforms necessary to join the EU. “What we have is a kind of positive competition amongst them, they’re looking jealously on each other,” he told POLITICO.
The Commission is also getting ready to recommend the start of accession talks with Albania and possibly Macedonia in the first half of next year, according to Hahn, although he said this would only happen if he could be sure EU governments would receive the proposals positively.
* The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at : http://politico.eu
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