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EU membership for Western Balkans remains far off, despite upbeat talks

EU membership for Western Balkans remains far off, despite upbeat talks

Ministers will discuss candidate status for Bosnia and Herzegovina next week.
Western Balkan leaders hailed a “new mindset” in the EU’s attitude toward their region on Tuesday, as they struck a series of deals with Brussels, including reduced roaming charges and greater integration in higher education.

But concrete progress on actually joining the EU — the ultimate goal of the six members of the Western Balkans region — remained elusive at a day-long summit in Tirana, the Albanian capital.

Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama, who hosted the gathering, emphasized the positives at a press conference with European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

“Things are changing,” he said. Brussels is showing serious interest in the region for geopolitical, strategic reasons “for the first time,” he added.

But while the EU touted its financial commitments to the Western Balkans — namely a €30 billion Economic and Investment Plan focused on infrastructure projects — it will face the first test of its commitment to actually allow more countries to join the bloc next week. EU leaders meeting at a summit on December 15 will decide whether to grant candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The decision over candidate status requires unanimity, and not all EU countries agree that it’s the right thing to do.

Responding to a question from POLITICO, Michel said he hopes that “a good signal will be given” in the coming days about granting candidate status to the Balkan country.

European ministers are scheduled to discuss the issue at a meeting on December 13 in Brussels, after the European Commission recommended granting candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina in October on the condition that certain steps were taken.

But some EU members are cautious about opening the door further to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the nation that emerged from a bloody ethnic war in the 1990s. At the very least, the country needs to fulfill 14 criteria before accession talks can begin, on everything from the rule of law to public administration reform.

In a joint declaration issued after the summit, the EU reconfirmed its “full and unequivocal commitment to the European Union membership perspective of the Western Balkans.” But this needed to be based upon “credible reforms by partners; fair and rigorous conditionality,” the statement said.

The statement also said that partners must align with the EU’s restrictive measures — a coded reference to Serbia’s refusal to adopt sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Still, the mood in Tirana was more positive than the last summit in Brussels six months ago, which ended with an ill-tempered press conference during which the leaders of Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania vented their frustration with the slow pace of progress.

The deals announced at the Tirana summit included a commitment for telecommunication providers to reduce roaming charges in 2023, and the inclusion of Western Balkan countries in the European Universities Initiative, which strengthens partnerships between educational institutions but is typically limited to EU countries.

The EU also called for “swift alignment” between the bloc and Western Balkan members’ visa policies, as well as a commitment by non-EU countries to live up to their readmission agreements. This is aimed at reducing the number of illegal entries by migrants into the EU through the Western Balkans route, a key concern of many EU member states.

In a sign of political tensions domestically, an anti-government protest took place in central Tirana close to where the leaders were meeting. The gathering beneath garlands of EU flags put in place for the summit descended into violence when Sali Berisha, the opposition leader and former president and prime minister, was punched. A 31-year-old suspect was taken into custody.

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