Are the countries of the Western Balkans stuck in an abusive relationship with the EU? It’s a question worth asking ahead of the latest EU-Western Balkans summit being held at Brdo pri Kranju in Slovenia today. The abuse doesn’t take the form of economic sanctions, military action or anything particularly dramatic. And yet, if details of this relationship were published in a newspaper problem page, there’s a fair chance the advice would be, “Run for the hills and don’t look back!”
Brussels says that it remains committed to bringing the WB6 – Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo – into the family. The pledge goes all the way back to the Thessaloniki Declaration at the original EU-Western Balkans summit in 2003 (pictured). And yet, 18 years on, the only participant at Thessaloniki to make it into the club is Croatia.
Montenegro has been slogging away at negotiations since 2012, and Serbia since 2013, with no end in sight despite a target date for accession of 2025. Albania and North Macedonia have received European Commission approval to start negotiations but not the crucial go-ahead from the European Council. The reason: Bulgaria is wielding a veto, demanding that North Macedonia concede that the origins of its language and people are Bulgarian. And to think that North Macedonia already changed its name to prevent a Greek veto. Meanwhile, Kosovo remains unrecognised by five EU member states – and Bosnia is a perpetual basket case.
Despite all this, people in the WB6 still want to join the EU. In a recent poll in Serbia, 57 per cent gave the thumbs up; positive sentiment is even stronger in North Macedonia and Albania. But such faith might not last forever; after all, if you change the name of your country and still don’t get a green light, it’s bound to dent your enthusiasm a little. The EU27 need to show commitment in deeds as well as in words – and make good on their promise to the WB6.
Guy De Launey is Monocle’s Balkans correspondent. You can hear more from him on today’s edition of ‘The Globalist’ on Monocle 24.