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KRANJ, Slovenia — At a summit that was a showcase of duplicity and double talk, of dreams and dejection, and of the disconnect between genuine intentions and harsh reality, EU leaders proclaimed their support for six Western Balkans nations to join their club, while simultaneously admitting that the entry process was effectively stalled.
The expectations for the summit Wednesday, a centerpiece of Slovenia’s presidency of the Council for the EU, were so low that EU leaders and national officials from the Western Balkans all managed to leave feeling relatively upbeat despite making almost no progress, and numerous media accounts citing how Brussels was failing to keep its promises.
In a sign of how excruciatingly difficult the politics of adding new member countries has become, summit organizers celebrated the fact that the leaders’ final declaration included just a single mention of “enlargement” — a word that opponents of increasing the EU’s size had fought fiercely to prevent from making an appearance in the text.
And as further evidence of the deeply fraught situation, the start of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania — which have already received a green light from Brussels — are being blocked primarily by Bulgaria, a country that hosted its own Western Balkans summit in 2018 and claimed credit for putting enlargement back on track. The government in Sofia has been holding up North Macedonia’s membership due to disputes over history and language, which it insists must first be resolved, and as a result, is also hindering Albania as the EU has effectively linked the two countries’ bids.
The whole situation seemed to be summed up in a video clip showing Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte chatting amiably as they arrived at the summit in torrential rain, then insisting that the other one enter first — an argument of etiquette that led the men to walk backward on the red carpet, while each tried to push the other forward.
At a closing news conference, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen insisted the EU’s arms were wide open to the Western Balkans.
“The Commission’s message is very clear,” she said. “First of all, the Western Balkans is part of the same Europe as the European Union. We share the same history. We share the same interests, the same values and, I am deeply convinced, also the same destiny. And the European Union is not complete without the Western Balkans.
“So,” she continued, “my Commission will continue to do its utmost to advance the enlargement process and the region’s EU integration. We want the Western Balkans in the European Union. There cannot be any doubt that our goal is enlargement.”
But moments later at the very same news conference, von der Leyen admitted that while the Balkan nations have all undertaken reforms to meet EU membership requirements, the EU is not living up to its end of the bargain.
“In the meantime, the European Union also has to deliver,” she said. “And in particular, the lack of a decision for opening the negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania is jeopardizing our standing and our leverage in the region.”
And yet von der Leyen still cheered the leaders’ endorsement of the one line including the word enlargement. “If you look at our declaration, it is a very clear statement that our commitment to enlargement is in the very first paragraph. That shows our willingness here to move forward,” she said.
European Council President Charles Michel similarly cited the importance of the Western Balkans to the EU and celebrated the leaders’ declaration.
“Today’s declaration is substantial, dense, it sets out a lot of tangible concrete issues around our relationships. It has been validated by all the leaders,” Michel said.
But he also said, “It’s no secret … there is an ongoing discussion among the 27 about our capacity to take on new members. On this subject, it’s clear that we still need to make some progress.”
EU leaders sought to stress their efforts to provide economic aid and other assistance to the Western Balkans countries, given that accession negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro are moving at a snail’s pace, those with Albania and North Macedonia have yet to begin, and Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo have not even gotten the green light for talks.
While much of the assistance had been previously announced, EU leaders trumpeted its potential impact on Wednesday. The efforts could reduce cell phone roaming charges, improve rail and waterway transport connectivity, enhance market integration, supply additional coronavirus vaccines and advance a “green agenda” investment program anchored by €9 billion in grants over the next seven years.
Leaders and officials from the Western Balkans were guardedly positive given the low expectations. they tried to put an optimistic spin on the overall state of relations, saying the leaders’ declaration was stronger than those at two previous summits in Croatia and Bulgaria.
“I think it is good that they managed to reaffirm their commitment towards the enlargement process — those words were not used in Zagreb, those words were not used in Sofia,” a senior Western Balkans official said.
But the official said time was running short for the EU to make good on its promises. “We have the political signal,” the official said. “But to restore the trust of the people that this is actually reality, that they can count on the EU when they say, ‘Your future is with us’ — I think we will need action.”
Zoran Zaev, the North Macedonia prime minister, which added “North” to its name in 2018 to end a dispute with Greece and advance its EU membership application, used the summit as a chance to slam Bulgaria, and its president Rumen Radev, for delaying the start of talks.
“Today,” Zaev said in a statement, “we had another strong reaffirmation that only one EU member state opposes our integration and commencement of membership negotiations with the European Union.”
He branded Bulgaria’s opposition “an insult to the Macedonian citizens” and proclaimed that “the Macedonian people, despite being amicable, cannot justify the blockages.”
Separately, after a meeting on the sidelines with Radev, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Zaev’s government said in a statement that: “During the talks, mutual readiness and interest were expressed by North Macedonia and Bulgaria to continue the dialogue between the two countries with the intention of reaching a solution.”
At the summit, the Kosovo prime minister, Albin Kurti, gave a speech in which he said, “We welcome today’s declaration with a few reservations.”
Upon his arrival, Kurti had said, “In our relations towards EU, we are critical, but without being bitter and without being afraid.” Asked later about the summit declaration, the prime minister said, “of course, I am critical, because it could have been better, but I still am hopeful that EU is staying faithful to its essence, which is enlargement.”
In Kosovo’s case, some of its reservations are related to its continuing border conflict with Serbia, but the overall sentiment, of welcoming the summit results with reservations, seemed widespread.
At the closing news conference, Michel returned to the question of the EU’s military capabilities, which leaders discussed at a dinner Tuesday night, and said that the main conclusion in his mind was that building Europe’s independent defense capabilities would no longer be viewed as potentially undermining NATO or a threat to partnerships with the U.S.
“It’s not a question for us, of either NATO or European defense,” Michel said. “We want a strong European Union including in matters of defense — a strong European Union in defense is in itself a way of bolstering our alliances and strengthening our alliances.”
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi stressed that for the EU to make progress on defense, it needed a more cohesive and unified foreign policy.
“One hears a lot about strategic autonomy in defense but if there’s not a common foreign policy, it’s very difficult to think of a common defense,” Draghi said.
The Italian leader said he would prefer an all-EU approach. “One can get there in two ways: one is inside the European Union, and if it doesn’t work, one can get there in the traditional way, with alliances among countries, several countries of the European Union. It’s clear that the first way to do this is far preferable,” he said, adding: “No doubt it has come the time to think about it and to think about it seriously.”
Meanwhile, Zaev said the EU should begin to think of itself more broadly. “North Macedonia is Europe,” he said in his statement. “Western Balkans is Europe!”
Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.