German chancellor Angela Merkel has urged Balkan leaders to focus on reforms that will bring them closer to European Union membership, while warning that accession is still a distant prospect for most of their countries.
Dr Merkel is preparing to step down after 16 years in office, and paid a farewell visit to the Balkans at a time of growing frustration there over the EU’s lack of enthusiasm towards further enlargement, and concerns among Balkan residents that their governments have little appetite to fight corruption and pursue vital changes.
Serbia and Kosovo remain at loggerheads 13 years after the latter declared independence from Belgrade, and North Macedonia and Albania are annoyed that their EU membership talks have been postponed despite their fulfilment of all the criteria stated by Brussels.
“The EU must keep its word and not always come up with new conditions again and again because it doesn’t have any interest – perhaps due to domestic reasons in some countries – to push forward the process of accession,” Dr Merkel said in the Albanian capital Tirana on Tuesday.
“That causes disappointment and I can understand that disappointment ... We should trust each other,” she added, after meeting the prime ministers of Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia, Montenegro and North Macedonia.
She flew to Tirana after talks with Serbian president Aleksander Vucic in Belgrade, where she said she hoped “that we will soon get some momentum back in this entire [EU enlargement] process.”
“There is still a long way to go before Serbia and the whole region can finally become members of the European Union, as is our common goal,” she added, while noting the importance of an area where Russia, China and Turkey also seek influence.
“We, who are already members of the European Union, should keep in mind that there is an absolute geostrategic interest for us to include these countries in the European Union,” Dr Merkel said.
Critics of Mr Vucic and the West’s approach to his rule say he has escaped criticism for concentrating huge power in his own hands and undermining Serbian democracy by convincing the EU that he is a vital to maintaining stability in the Balkans.
“Vucic does not make false promises, but tries to implement [his promises] and that is why I thank him for his co-operation and encourage him to go further towards the rule of law and a pluralistic society,” Dr Merkel said.
Zeljko Komsic, the Croat member of Bosnia’s three-person presidency, criticised her for paying a separate visit to Belgrade and described the gathering of other Balkan leaders in Tirana as mere “compensation for the meeting with Vucic.”
“If the aim is to make Serbia a regional boss, that won’t work,” he said. “We can be equal and talk on that basis only. No more bosses in the Balkans.”