Western Balkans and the EU: “20 years no heaven, no hell”

Status: 06/23/2022 10:28 a.m

The states of the Western Balkans have been waiting for EU accession for many years. The unclear perspective causes them frustration. Will they now benefit from Ukraine’s likely candidate status?

By Wolfgang Vichtl, ARD Studio Southeast Europe

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has her say. on the last Western Balkans summit in Brdo, Slovenia last October she finds urgently warm words for the half-dozen Western Balkan countries that would also like to belong to the EU family:

“My message to the Western Balkans is: we want you in the European Union. Stay the course now, don’t give up, keep going! The goal is in front of our eyes.”

Not the same again

In Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia they didn’t feel like listening to the same thing again in Brussels and preferred to stay at home. All three are EU candidates, North Macedonia since 2005.

North Macedonia’s President Stevo Pendarovski put it soberly: “I know that the Balkans are not a priority in the EU. But we haven’t been here or there for 20 years, not in heaven, not on earth.”

Now Bulgaria is blocking

He’s in Brussels after all – after his small country stayed on course for years, renaming itself from Macedonia to North Macedonia so that the EU country Greece would give up its veto. And now: the EU neighboring country Bulgaria is blocking because of a language dispute that is difficult to understand in Brussels.

Hope germinated briefly when Harvard graduate and career changer Kiril Petkow became prime minister in Sofia. But that’s already over and Petkow was overthrown by a vote of no confidence – a few hours before the Western Balkans summit.

One of his allies did not want to support his North Macedonia policy, says Petkov shortly after his fall ARD and recalled his promise: “Our party’s position is: North Macedonia should be part of the European Union. But the final decision must be made by Parliament.” But Petkov has just lost his majority in this parliament.

What the war against Ukraine changed

A lot has changed since the last Western Balkans summit. Russia has attacked Ukraine, so Ukraine and Moldova will be granted EU candidate status, in the fast lane, so to speak. That should also speed things up for the Western Balkans, according to the countries concerned, but also EU partners such as Germany and Austria.

Kosovo’s Foreign Minister Donika Gervella-Schwarz tries to talk away her frustration with the overtakers. Ukraine is “in a brutal war,” and that is the common stance of most colleagues in the western Balkans, if not all: “If candidate status helps Ukraine win this war, then the western Balkans is the very last in the region to stand in the way of this.”

What you get from the long wait

No unfair competition with Ukraine, that’s her message in an interview with “Deutschlandfunk”. But she also has a message for EU Commission President von der Leyen about “don’t give up”:

That’s what they get when they wait a long time and rely on partners who say: ‘Wait a little longer, wait a little longer, because your time will come at some point.’ We will apply for candidate status this year.

And before that, it would be nice, she says, if the EU were to keep a promise it made years ago: visa-free travel for the people of Kosovo. From their point of view, a touchstone for the EU. The chances of that happening are fifty-fity.

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