European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker wrapped up his tour of six Balkan countries in Sofia, Bulgaria on March 1 by urging the leaders of the nations he visited to speed up the pace of reforms, but gave no indication that EU was ready to provide a concrete date for their accession to the bloc.
The meeting, hosted by Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, whose country presently holds the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, followed the publication of a new strategy on how to bring the region closer to the EU.
During his five-day visit to the region, Juncker stopped in FYROM/Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo, having a separate message for each, demanding that they continue with their individual reforms in order to fulfill the criteria for eventual EU membership.
The EU strategy document vaguely indicates 2025 as the year for possible accession, with Montenegro and Serbia – former core members of Communist-era Yugoslavia – considered to be the closest to realising their goal of full European Union membership.
Juncker as quick to stress that no accession date had been promised to any of the Western Balkan nations, but said it “could possibly happen in 2025,” if the countries fulfill the criteria laid out by Brussels.
FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia)
In FYROM, on February 25, Juncker told Skopje’s lawmakers that the country needed to resolve its long-standing name dispute with neighbouring Greece before membership talks with the EU can begin.
Greece objects to the former Yugoslav republic’s use of the name Macedonia, which Athens says implies territorial, historical, and cultural claims over its own northern region of the same name. Skopje has said it is ready to add a geographical qualifier to its name to help resolve the dispute. An agreement could include adding “Upper,” “New,” or “North” to the name.
As a goodwill gesture to Greece, FYROM’s authorities have already changed the name of its main airport from Alexander the Great, to Skopje International Airport.
In Tirana, Juncker told local politicians that Albania’s “natural place is within the European Union…and the 2025 date is open to all candidate countries,” Juncker told Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama that he was “not in Tirana to offer a concrete date, but to encourage Albania to continue with its reforms.”
Rama has recently been in hot water with Brussels and the United States over irredentist comments regarding a shared government with neighbouring Kosovo, whose own population is 95% Muslim Albanian.
In Belgrade, Juncker insisted again that Serbia must resolve its dispute with Kosovo, adding that the country was on the right path, but that the EU could not accept any new members with unresolved territorial issues. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic appeared to agree, saying, “We need a compromise or we will continue to live in the past.”
Kosovo declared independence in 2008 and is recognized by 116 other countries, including most EU members. But Belgrade does not recognize its independence. Juncker said the EU was seeking a “legally-binding” agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, but that the scope of the deal was up to the two countries.
In Podgorica, Juncker discussed with Prime Minister Dusko Markovic the recently drafted EU expansion strategy that theoretically envisages Montenegro and Serbia joining the bloc by 2025. Markovic said he expects to open two new negotiating chapters on justice and the judiciary early this year to further Montenegro’s bid to join the European Union.
Juncker also said that Montenegro had already demonstrated a devotion to common European values worthy of the region’s admiration.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Juncker urged Sarajevo’s leaders to overcome their ethnoreligious differences if they want the country to join the European Union. “Nationalism is poison and it is contrary to European values,” Juncker told Bosnia’s parliament.
Based on the 1996 Dayton Peace Accord that ended Bosnia’s three-year civil war, the country consists of two highly autonomous entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina – made up Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats, and the Serb-run Republika Srpska. Bosnia applied for EU membership 18 months ago, but the reform process has stalled amid political quarrels between the country’s leaders.
Meeting with Kosovar President Hashim Thaci, a former KLA guerilla leader in the 1990s, in Pristina, Juncker urger Kosovo to not only seek better ties with Serbia but also to ratify a border demarcation agreement with Montenegro. The EU has said the border treaty is a precondition for Kosovo’s citizens to travel visa-free within the Schengen Zone.
Opposition parties claim that Kosovo will lose territory following the provisions of a 2015 agreement, although that has been denied by the previous government and international experts.
The trip closed out in the Bulgarian capital Sofia on March 1, with the leaders of the six countries gathered to list of their individual challenges, including Serbia’s ties with Kosovo, border disputes, crippling ethnic tensions in Bosnia, and FYROM’s name dispute with EU and NATO neighbour Greece.
The EU’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, and EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn accompanied Juncker on the tour. Mogherini, added, “if there’s a security problem in any of these countries, then it automatically becomes a security problem for the EU.”
Many EU governments remain wary of letting in former Communist Bloc countries still scarred by wars fought along ethnic lines in the 1990s and dogged by a reputation for lawlessness.
They are also anxious not to repeat the mistake of the rushed accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 and the poorly managed migration of Eastern European workers to Britain that turned many Britons against the EU.
Juncker’s tour of the Western Balkans came after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov travelled to Belgrade last week for a two-day visit aimed at bolstering long-standing ties with its traditional Slavic, Eastern Orthodox ally Serbia.
During the visit, Lavrov welcomed Belgrade’s drive to join the EU, but also vowed that Moscow would remain a major presence in Serbia’s affairs “no matter what happens”.