Balkans’ frustration mounts over Ukraine’s fast-track to EU membership

17 Shtator 2023, 20:01Kosovo & Region TEMA

Balkans’ frustration mounts over Ukraine’s fast-track to EU

Some western Balkan leaders are growing increasingly frustrated that Ukraine is leapfrogging their countries in the EU accession process, adding further delays to their decades-long efforts to join the bloc. “I have nothing against Ukrainians,” Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić told the Financial Times.

But the EU’s level of support for Ukraine, granting it EU candidate status within a year from its application and potentially starting membership talks next year, “shows to us [such political support] has never been there for us”, he said. Kyiv applied for membership in February 2022, days after Russia’s full-scale invasion, and was granted candidate status four months later. By contrast, Belgrade had to wait more than four years after applying to start membership talks in 2014.

Serbia’s negotiations are currently bogged down over several issues, most notably Belgrade’s failure to normalise relations with its former province Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008. Serbia is also the only western Balkan nation that has not adopted EU’s sanctions against Russia, which has further slowed down its membership prospects. The EU has pledged to accelerate the membership track of six western Balkan countries — Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina — with European Council president Charles Michel arguing that the first accessions should happen by 2030. But at a recent event in Slovenia following Michel’s announcement, Albanian prime minister Edi Rama cast doubt on the new target and quipped that the Ukraine example shows that war can accelerate membership. “Who should attack whom in this panel to get the membership faster?”

Rama jokingly asked fellow leaders who were with him on stage. “Bulgaria can easily attack North Macedonia, Croatia can attack Serbia, Serbia can attack Kosovo, Bosnia can attack itself . . . so we can all be ready to join the train with Ukraine.” While Ukraine’s swifter progress frustrates many, North Macedonia, a Nato country that waited 18 years before starting EU membership talks, said it wasn’t considering the war-torn country as “competition”. “The outcome of the war in Ukraine will define the fate of the union itself,” said North Macedonia’s foreign minister, Bujar Osmani. “Ukraine should not be seen as being privileged because Ukraine is not fighting for itself only, it is fighting for . . . the future of the continent.”

The break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s led to wars between Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, leading to tens of thousands of deaths and millions of people displaced. Some hostilities, including over the make-up of Bosnia and the status of Kosovo, have flared up repeatedly since then, making their EU integration even more elusive. After yet another fruitless summit between the countries’ leaders on Thursday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said “without normalisation, there will not be a European future for either Kosovo or Serbia”.

Kosovo applied for EU membership last December and is yet to be granted candidate status. Still, Vučić claimed that the delays were not reflecting the reality in his country, which he argued was “in much better shape than Romania and Bulgaria were in 2007 when they joined the EU”. He also blamed the EU’s declining ability to absorb new members. “We [have heard] about 2025, now it’s 2030 . . . it’s seven years,” Vučić said. “Who knows what will happen in seven years? The absorption power of the EU is not bigger than it was. You have 10 net contributors and 17 countries that are taking their money. Neither would like to have more members on their payment roll.” At the conference in Slovenia, Michel said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had forced a reckoning and revived Balkan enlargement after two decades of stagnation. “This is ambitious, but necessary.

It shows that we are serious,” he said about the 2030 pledge. Analysts found this commitment unconvincing, given the persisting rule of law and corruption concerns and other issues that have been holding them back for years. “I don’t think this 2030 date makes sense,” said Jasmin Mujanović, a Sarajevo-born political scientist specialising in the western Balkans. “The geopolitical moment from Ukraine is there, but it is very difficult,” he added, comparing the situation to 2003, when western Balkans membership was first floated. At the time, he noted, the sense of urgency was greater as the region’s violent conflicts had just ended. “In 2003 the EU had no competitors, Russia, China were no threats . . . There was a much greater degree of optimism.” But 20 years on, “we have seen the EU break every promise, fail on every threat,” he said. In Serbia, the hard right has made a comeback, in Bosnia, Milorad Dodik, a frequent critic of the EU and the west, “is untouchable” and Belgrade’s disputes with Kosovo are unresolved. “There is very little hope of any credible improvement.” (FT)

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