European Union and Western Balkan leaders pose for a group photo during an EU summit in Brussels on June 23.
The leaders of six Balkan countries complained on June 23 about the lack of progress on their bids to join the European Union just as the bloc was prepared to grant Ukraine and Moldova candidate status.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama hailed the granting of candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova but said they should have no illusions. He pointed out that Albania and other Balkan countries have had candidate status for years -- North Macedonia since 2005 and Albania since 2014. Rama and the leaders of the other five Balkan countries seeking EU membership -- Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia -- met with EU leaders for four hours ahead of an expected announcement granting candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova. They confirmed after the meeting that the war in Ukraine has put the enlargement process in the foreground, and this means a heightened priority for the process of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania and progress in bilateral and regional disputes, including the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia.
Balkan countries are deeply frustrated about the deadlock in their bids to join. Especially frustrating for Albania and North Macedonia is EU member Bulgaria’s veto on the start of negotiations because of a dispute with Skopje relating to history and language.
Albania is being held back because the EU has linked its progress to that of North Macedonia.
"It's a disgrace that a NATO country, Bulgaria, kidnaps two other NATO countries, namely, Albania and North Macedonia, in the midst of hot war in Europe's backyard with 26 other countries sitting still in a scary show of impotence," Rama said. Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, who represented his country at the summit despite losing a confidence vote on June 22, said he hopes for a vote to support North Macedonia in the Bulgarian parliament soon but gave no details. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said the Bulgarian blockage was "really not fair" but insisted the region needed to push on and overcome difficulties. "We cannot cry out because even if anyone will hear them or will hear us it will change nothing,” he said. “We need to work. We need to carry on changing ourselves." Dimitar Kovacevski, the prime minister of North Macedonia, also expressed frustration. "What has happened is a serious blow to the credibility (of) the European Union," Kovacevski said, referring to the lack of progress on Balkan EU membership bids. “We are wasting precious time, which we do not have at our disposal.” Sefik Dzaferovic, chairman of the Bosnian presidency, said there was strong support at the summit for Bosnia-Herzegovina to also be granted candidate status. “What Ukraine is experiencing today, [Bosnia] experienced in the 1990s,” he said, referring to the 1992-95 Bosnian civil war. “If there is a state that should be granted candidate status for geostrategic and geopolitical reasons, then it is [Bosnia].” At the summit, the EU restated its promise to give the Balkan countries membership once they enacted economic, judicial, and political reforms. "The meeting clearly and unequivocally reiterated the European perspective of the Western Balkans and the region's future in the European Union," an EU official quoted by Reuters said. Among the reasons the EU enlargement process has stalled are fears of a repeat 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, leading to Brexit. But officials in Brussels have also openly worried that the lack of progress for the Balkans could push the region closer to Russia and China.