On Thursday, the EU will hold out, at a special summit, the prospect of membership to six western Balkan countries as early as 2025 as it seeks to breathe new life into the enlargement of the Union, strengthen controls on migration, and counter Russian influence in the volatile region.
Before the EU-Western Balkans summit on May 17 in Sofia, the 28 European Union member states had to agree on a draft declaration, trying to sort out their already known internal divisions.
The six Western Balkans countries participating in the summit are: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, FYROM, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Serbia.
The presence of Kosovo has complicated the drafting with five EU members — Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain – that are not recognizing Pristina’s independence.
Some of the five were unhappy about calling the final document a “declaration” and insisted they would prefer to call it simply the “Bulgarian Presidency conclusions”.
This compromise is designed to ensure all 34 invitees attend the Sofia Summit, which is seen as the highlight of Bulgaria’s stint at the helm of the EU in the first half of 2018, after some of the countries that do not recognise Kosovo’s independence threatened they may not attend the gathering.
The compromise, in order not to antagonise the five, is thus that the draft would be called “the Sofia declaration” but with a statement in brackets, after the 16 points of the declaration, saying that “we note that our Western Balkans partners align themselves with the above points.”
In the final text, the six Western Balkan countries are not mentioned by name and are referred to as “partners,” as supposed to “states” or “countries,” in an apparent effort to ease concerns about the reference to Kosovo’s status.
Kosovo, a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008 after a bloody conflict with Serbia almost a decade earlier, remains unrecognized by the five EU member states due to aspirations of autonomy by people in those countries.
Spain has adopted a tough stance amid the fallout from what Madrid says was an illegal October 2017 independence referendum in the Catalonia region. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy came for a visit in Bulgaria, but he will not attend the EU-Western Balkans summit on 17 May.
Elsewhere in the document, the language about the EU enlargement perspective of the region has been strengthened by referring to the previous EU-Western Balkans summit in 2002 in the Greek city of Thessaloniki, where EU member states agreed that the Western Balkans one day will be part of the European Union.
It says that “recalling the Thessaloniki summit of 2003, the EU reaffirms its unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans. Building on the progress achieved so far, the Western Balkans partners have recommitted to the European perspective as their firm strategic choice, to reinforcing their efforts and mutual support. The credibility of these efforts depends on clear public communication.”
That language will please countries such as Austria, Italy, and Sweden that are keen for the EU to take in Western Balkans countries. But at the same time, countries in the Western Balkans are likely to point out that no firmer commitment to their eventual membership has been achieved in 15 years.
Sofia has tried to maintain the high profile of the summit, while lowering the expectations from the meeting.