Frustrated Balkans warn Ukraine over EU 'illusions'

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama attends an EU-Western Balkans leaders' meeting in Brussels on June 23, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BRUSSELS (AFP) - Angry Balkan leaders on Thursday (June 23) lashed out at the European Union over their stalled bids to join, as the EU’s decision to make Ukraine a candidate nation highlighted the region’s failure to make progress.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama hailed Ukraine potentially joining his country as a candidate for European Union membership but warned against any unreasonable hopes for a speedy process.

"North Macedonia is a candidate for 17 years if I have not lost count, Albania since eight, so welcome to Ukraine," Mr Rama said as he arrived for an EU summit with western Balkan countries.

"It's a good thing to give Ukraine the status. But I hope that Ukrainian people will not make many illusions."

European Union leaders granted candidate status on Thursday to Ukraine and neighbouring Moldova in a strong show of support against Russia’s invasion.

Ukraine applied to become an EU candidate in a bid to cement its place in Europe just days after Moscow launched its invasion in February.

The Balkan leaders are deeply frustrated about their stalled bids to join the EU, with Bulgaria blocking the start of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia over a dispute with Skopje.

"It's a disgrace that a Nato country, Bulgaria, kidnaps two other Nato countries, namely, Albania and North Macedonia, in the midst of hot war in Europe's backyard with 26 other countries sitting still in a scary show of impotence," Mr Rama said.

Mr Rama, along with the leaders of North Macedonia and Serbia, had threatened to boycott the EU meeting in protest against the lack of progress - but in the end decided to show.

“What is happening now is a serious problem and serious blow to the credibility of the European Union. We are wasting precious time which we do not have at our disposal,” said North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski.

“It is time for the European Union to fulfil its promises.”

Bulgaria's EU counterparts have been pushing it to accept a compromise deal in its long-standing historical and culture dispute with North Macedonia in order to clear the path.

But the collapse of the Bulgarian government following a no-confidence vote on Wednesday has thrown the move further into doubt.

Bulgaria’s beleaguered premier Kiril Petkov in Brussels said he hoped for a decision by MPs on Friday to break the EU gridlock.

However, Mr Petkov also made clear that the lifting of the veto was not a fait accompli.

“Until there is a decision by parliament, neither I personally nor the government will change the Bulgarian stance,” he said.

And North Macedonia’s Kovacevski, a little earlier said the compromise proposal “in its current form” was “unacceptable”.

"The states and citizens of the Western Balkans have been waiting for almost 20 years for the possibility of becoming members of the European Union," German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said.

"In my view, it is of the utmost importance that this promise becomes credible."

EU chief Charles Michel said there was "a will to re-energise" the accession process for the Balkan countries.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said the Bulgarian blockage was “really not fair” but insisted the region needs to push on by itself regardless.

“I just hope that all of us will be able to overcome these difficulties,” he said.

“We cannot cry out because even if anyone will hear them or will hear us it will change nothing. We need to work. We need to carry on changing ourselves.”

Brussels is worried that the lack of progress for the Balkans could push the region closer to Russia and China.

Some members of the bloc have been trying to use the push for candidate status for Ukraine - and its neighbour Moldova - to breathe new impetus into getting the Balkans on board.

But there has been annoyance with Serbia that it had failed to align with EU sanctions against its ally Russia over the invasion of Ukraine.

A political crisis in Bosnia-Hercegovina that has stirred fears of the country's break-up has hampered efforts to make it a candidate to join.

European diplomats said that the country could be offered a clearer road map of what it needs to do to achieve candidate status.

European Union leaders on Thursday agreed to consider making Bosnia a candidate to join, Mr Michel said.

Bosnia lodged its formal bid to enter in 2016 but has been stuck at the level of “potential candidate” after failing to make progress on a raft of reforms requested by Brussels.

Mr Michel said that the EU’s executive arm would now draw up a report into whether Bosnia was nearer to fulfilling the conditions.

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