Ukraine’s candidacy spurs Balkans’ impatience to join the EU | International
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The Russian invasion of Ukraine has turned Europe into a very complex chessboard in which each move has the potential to mark the destiny of the continent. The game is currently being played in the East: at the gates of the Twenty-seven summit to be held this Thursday and Friday in Brussels, in which the capitals plan to grant Ukraine the status of candidate —except for a major surprise—, The EU has also wanted to hold a preliminary meeting with the countries of the Western Balkans. “It is a geopolitical summit,” says a senior community source.
The meeting with the Balkan countries sought, on the one hand, to revitalize the languishing accession process of several already candidate countries (Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia). Those countries, stagnant for years, may feel affected by the arrival of Ukraine and Moldova in their club on the fast track. On the other hand, the summit sought to define where the trench runs against Russia, which seems willing to take advantage of any gap or crack, especially in Belgrade. Serbia, a country with which Moscow maintains good historical relations, is the place where the shadow of the Kremlin is most strongly projected.
After the appointment, which has been tense and longer than expected, the leaders of Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia have appeared in a bad mood and have shown considerable anger at an accession process whose spirit they consider “murky”, in the words of Edi Rama, Prime Minister of Albania. They have charged against a “divided” EU that still treats them as “guests”. They have called for a different accession system to prevent a single country from blocking the access of another, as Bulgaria does with North Macedonia. And they have stressed that they are going home as they came: without any specific agreement, or dates, or milestones on their future in the EU.
A large part of the Twenty-seven intend to make it clear to the Serbian leader, Aleksandar Vucic, that at the moment there are no shades of grey. Wartime calls for taking sides. “Before giving future benefits to Serbia, we have to be clear about its commitment to align with European values,” says a senior diplomatic source. “This is the moment of definition. And actions are what define you. We expect much more from Serbia”, he points out. “We will be frank with them,” adds another top-ranking diplomat. “We will clearly call for alignment with EU sanctions against Russia.” This same demand also appears forcefully written as a warning to all the candidates in the draft conclusions of the summit, to which EL PAÍS has had access. But the notice takes aim in a veiled way at Serbia.
The war has caused the EU to step on the accession accelerator again. “Ukraine has served as an icebreaker”, adds one of the cited sources; the military incursion ordered by Vladimir Putin and the rapprochement of kyiv with Brussels could be like an astral conjunction, the spark that revitalizes a stagnant enlargement. “The European Union expresses its full and unequivocal commitment to the prospect of EU membership for the Western Balkans and calls for the accession process to be speeded up,” proclaims the European Council’s draft conclusions.
The candidatures of North Macedonia and Albania
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Among the countries mired in this long process are North Macedonia and Albania, candidates for accession since 2005 and 2014, respectively. But the conflict between Bulgaria and North Macedonia still weighs on both of them —and prevents them from moving forward for the time being. Sofia still maintains her veto over Skopje due to a historical and linguistic conflict, and the decision is directly connected to the political turbulence that Bulgaria is experiencing at the moment, where this Wednesday a motion of censure against the current coalition government, led by the Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov.
The Twenty-seven are even considering whether it would be convenient to separate both candidacies and advance only with that of Albania. The decision is delicate: it could leave in the lurch a North Macedonia that has made enormous political sacrifices to resolve its conflict with Greece. “North Macedonia has changed its name in order to become a member of the European Union”, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz recalled before entering the Council building. “This is just one example of many efforts.”
The Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, has shown his fury at the gates of the Council: “It is a shame that a NATO country, Bulgaria, kidnaps other NATO members, Albania and North Macedonia, in the middle of a hot war in the backyard of Europe, with 26 other countries sitting in a spectacle of fear and helplessness”, he has sentenced. “We need to continue building more Europe”, he added, and called for the Balkans “open to the whole world”.
At his entrance to the Council building in Brussels, the Serbian Vucic has concentrated all eyes. For a few days he even questioned whether he would attend the date. “But we are here to discuss our European future,” he replied in an appearance. Vucic has expressed his hope that the Council will pick up some “good conclusions” for the western Balkans, although without too much enthusiasm: “If it happens, it’s fine; if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t matter. Regardless, we are deeply grateful to the EU for investing in our countries by donating huge amounts of money.”
Among the Twenty-seven, a good number of partners see Serbia as a Trojan horse for Russia. Belgrade has condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations General Assembly, but Vucic has refused to join the wave of EU sanctions against Moscow. Until Putin launched the full-scale war against Ukraine, Serbia had played the card of being a buffer country between the EU and Russia. Now many in Brussels are urging Belgrade to choose sides. “There will come a time when you will have to define your position,” according to a senior leader of one of the major European political parties.
However, the Balkan country does not seem willing for now to abandon the flattery to Vladimir Putin, who have guaranteed him what Vucic has called the “most favorable gas price in Europe”, with a recently renewed agreement for about 400 euros for each 1,000 cubic meters, an amount greater than the previous agreement that was about to expire (about 238 euros), but still lower than the market price, which is between 700 and 800 euros. The new agreement will be in force until 2025.
Belgrade tries to obtain benefits from both sides, but publicly moving away from the positions in line with Moscow on the invasion of Ukraine would also mean for Vucic a confrontation with a good percentage of Serbian citizens who directly blame NATO and Ukraine for the war. ; Only 26% of Serbs blame Moscow for the invasion, according to an April poll by the Valicon polling company.
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