Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama likens the European Union to a reluctant betrothed. “For years, the EU has been telling us: we will get married someday, but I don’t want to talk to you and you can’t talk to others.”
Later in the conversation, the Prime Minister compares his country and neighboring North Macedonia with Vladimir and Estragon, the vainly waiting main characters from Beckett’s play. Waiting for Godot. And: “When Mark Rutte writes his memoirs, the talks between Albania and the EU about accession will start.”
Rama’s frustration is understandable. Albania has been in the Brussels waiting room for twelve years, and a step towards the eagerly desired accession to the EU seems a long way off. Until early last year it was the Netherlands and France that blocked negotiations, but now it is Bulgaria – an EU member since 2007 – that opposes talks for cultural-historical reasons. Bulgaria demands, among other things, that North Macedonia recognizes that its language has Bulgarian roots. Because the accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia are linked, the Bulgarian blockade rules out progress for both countries.
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The heads of government of the six Western Balkan countries – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – to speak with EU heads of government on Wednesday in a Slovenian castle. In advance it was expected that the European promise from 2003, a certain future within the EU for the countries, would be reconfirmed. It recently became clear that the final statement is likely to be more cautious, as some Member States do not want to make any commitments. Of course, there is ‘EU perspective’. Collaboration, yes please. But membership, well no.
In response to questions from the House of Representatives entered the caretaker cabinet on Tuesday on the likely final declaration of the Balkans Summit in Slovenia. “It is expected that the EU perspective of the countries of the Western Balkans will be reaffirmed and the importance of the rule of law, human rights and democracy in the region will be emphasized.” And: “It will be emphasized that the EU is by far the most important partner for the countries of the Western Balkans.”
Fighter Jets and Border Blockades
As understandable as Edi Rama’s frustration is the EU’s reticence. Take the mutual relations between Kosovo and Serbia. Their recent conflict over license plates, including border blockades and fighter jets, could only be appeased through EU mediation. The ethnic and national sentiments that led to the Yugoslavia wars in the 1990s have not disappeared. Stability is not a feature of the region.
Kosovo is itself an obstacle: Serbia’s declared independence in 2008 is not recognized by EU Member States Spain, Slovakia, Romania, Greece and Cyprus.
And then there are the concerns about corruption, migration, organized crime, authoritarian leaders, the fragile rule of law. Reform of the legal system weighs more heavily in the procedure for enlargement of the EU that was renewed last year, partly at the request of the Netherlands.
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Meeting the conditions set by Brussels is no mean feat, Prime Minister Rama says in his office in Tirana. “We are in the process of replacing judges who are comfortable with conflicts of interest or other issues. More than 60 percent dropped out. The big challenge is to appoint new and capable judges. That’s not how it goes. We are still busy in the operating room, please judge us on the quality of the operation. I understand that joining is not an option at this stage. But let the conversations about that begin.”
‘Permanent twilight zone’
There is still much to reform in the region from an economic point of view. The contrast with gross domestic product elsewhere in Europe is enormous. Through an Economic and Investment Plan, the EU is investing up to €9 billion in the Western Balkans, including focusing on digitalisation, (re)training and support for setting up small businesses. There is no shortage of EU subsidies; 3.3 billion euros in corona support has already gone to the six countries.
Yet, despite all the shortcomings in the six countries, keeping the door closed would be a ‘strategic mistake’ by the EU, said four Balkan experts and former EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton in a statement. opinion piece published on news site on Tuesday Politico.
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It is understandable that the European enthusiasm to bring former communist countries into the EU (Croatia was the most recent in 2013) has decreased. Financial crisis, migration crisis, Greek crisis, Brexit, all attacks on the sense of Europe. Public opinion in many countries turned against migration and economic solidarity.
But, the five authors write, by dangling the Western Balkans, the EU is inviting others into its cultural and geographic space, others who do not share EU values. “Keeping the Western Balkans in a permanent twilight zone on the fringes of Europe would be a strategic – and unnecessary – defeat.”
Those who advocate for the integration of the Balkans into the EU fear the influence of China, Russia, Turkey and the Gulf States. The port of Dürres will become the largest tourist port in the Mediterranean, according to Rama, with the help of Dubai. Turkey is building hydroelectric power stations in Albania, China is financing a very expensive highway in Montenegro, Russia is maintaining close ties with Serbia. Geopolitics is the best argument of the Balkan countries to get them out of the Brussels waiting room.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of October 6, 2021