Bloomberg Politics: Bulgaria Pushes for Clearer EU Membership Path for Western Balkans
The European Union’s poorest member is seeking to offer a clearer path toward membership for the western Balkans to prevent a return to the instability that ravaged the continent’s most volatile region two decades ago.
Bulgaria, which will assume the EU’s six-month rotating presidency in January, is pushing for the world’s biggest trading bloc to offer more concrete guidance on how Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina can join its ranks, Liliana Pavlova, Bulgaria’s minister in charge of the EU presidency, said last week.
While two countries that were once part of the former Yugoslavia are now part of the 28-member EU, most of the rest are struggling to integrate and join the wave of rising living standards in ex-communist Europe. Following a decade that included the Greek debt catastrophe, the arrival of millions of refugees and Brexit, Bulgaria plans to shift the discussion from crisis management to enlargement as it prepares to preside over a bloc-wide summit in May.
“We can’t change Europe’s agenda in six months, but we should be able to give to each of these countries a clear action plan based on their achievements and progress in resolving their problems,” Pavlova said. “Otherwise the rifts between the regions would deepen.”
Nearly two decades after Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II ended in the Balkans, the ex-communist region’s only countries to achieve EU entry have been Slovenia, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria. The latter two remain the poorest in the bloc and have been criticized for failing to tackle corruption and improve the judiciary. The shortcomings have impeded entry into the bloc’s border-free Schengen area.
In the rest of the western Balkans, most countries are trying to balance goals of joining the EU and maintaining ties with traditional allies such as Russia, a dynamic that’s split government loyalties and hampered efforts to align economies and laws with EU standards. It has also done little to end a string of disputes that have pitted governments against each other in spats over trade, borders, minority rights and other issues across the region.
“Our region has waited for EU membership too long,” the Republic of Macedonia’s prime minister, Zoran Zaev, said at a conference in Skopje Tuesday. “We have to work together to develop the whole region. The Balkans can’t be a powder keg anymore.”
Zaev has launched a renewed accession push after taking power and ending a prolonged domestic political standoff this year. But his government is still locked in a name dispute with Greece, which has blocked both its neighbor’s attempts to join the EU and NATO.
Serbia, which wants to be ready EU membership by 2020, must repair ties with Kosovo, whose 2008 independence it refuses to recognize. Kosovo is trying to advance after forming a new government last month. Montenegro needs to fight graft and organized crime to advance entry talks. And Bosnia-Herzegovina, the hardest-hit by Yugoslavia’s violent breakup, must strengthen public administration before it moves to accession talks after applying in 2016.
With the start of his country’s membership talks hinging on judicial reform, Edi Rama, the prime minister of accession candidate Albania, called on the EU to start full entry negotiations with every country in the region.
“It’s bizarre that some countries are negotiating and others aren’t,” Rama said at the conference in Skopje. “We’re Europeans. We’re here, in Europe. It’s increasingly important for us to be a part of the EU, but it’s also important for the EU to have us.”
While Brexit and plans for deeper EU integration complicate further expansion, enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn has declared Serbia and Montenegro “frontrunner candidates.” He’s vowed to step up work toward bringing western Balkan countries into the EU through 2025.
“The EU is not in a condition to think of enlargement at this moment, nor does the European public want to hear of it,” Vessela Cherneva, senior program director at the European Council of Foreign Relations, said by phone. “Bulgaria has yet to convince skeptical countries like the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and France to listen to the problems of the western Balkans.”
By Elizabeth Konstantinova and Slav Okov
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