No breakthrough at the EU meeting with leaders of Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo on the tortuous path towards bloc's membership.
European Union leaders have tried to reassure six Balkan countries they could eventually join the trading bloc if they meet its standards, but the leaders failed to provide a credible signal that the EU's enlargement process will be relaunched in the near future.
Despite years of talk about the “European perspective” of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia, the EU's progress on admitting them has stalled.
Albania and North Macedonia have met the criteria to start talks, but all 27 countries must agree unanimously for the process to move forward.
North Macedonia’s prime minister, Zoran Zaev, said that if EU promises don’t turn into reality, “people in the Western Balkans will feel big disappointment that will create huge damage to the European idea of unity and cooperation.”
"We share the same history, the same values and the same destiny".— European Commission 🇪🇺 (@EU_Commission) October 6, 2021
President @vonderleyen at the #EUWBSummit2021.
We will make every effort to advance the enlargement process of the EU, with the Economic Investment Plan mobilising some €30 billion for the region. pic.twitter.com/qjkuGvLDFj
EU enlargement plan
The EU's push for enlargement — once a key policy for the bloc — has ground to a halt in recent years.
Some richer members fear sparking a new wave of migration and some applicants are struggling with the required reforms, especially on democratic norms.
A final declaration from the summit said after much haggling that the bloc "reconfirms its commitment to the enlargement process".
But it also said that the EU had to first "deepen its own development, ensuring its capacity to integrate new members".
That came after members states rejected a demand by host Slovenia to commit to absorbing the aspirants from the Western Balkans by 2030.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that she was opposed to setting a deadline for the membership process that "puts us under pressure in the end".
But she still insisted the EU had an "immense geostrategic interest" in letting the Western Balkans in eventually.
This reflected the EU's increasing concern over inroads being made by Moscow and Beijing, which have sent millions of coronavirus vaccines to the region.
Driving force for reforms
The six nations in the Balkans region are at different stages on the EU membership path.
Montenegro and Serbia are the most advanced, having opened formal accession talks years ago. Albania and North Macedonia are awaiting the official opening of negotiations, and Kosovo and Bosnia are potential candidates.
EU membership is based on a candidate’s progress in areas such as respect for the rule of law and democratic standards in areas such as media freedom and judicial independence, and the implementation of specific socio-economic reforms.
The prospect of EU membership has served as a powerful driver of political and economic reform in the Balkans and has sometimes helped to keep a lid on tensions in a region that was torn apart by war in the 1990s.