Janez Janša surprised everyone by deciding to unveil the priorities of Slovenia’s presidency of the Council of the EU during a trip to Greece this week.
Slovenia takes over from Portugal on 1 July and, according to Janša, one of the highlights of its six-month stint at the helm will be an “informal EU-Western Balkans summit”.
If it sounds familiar, it’s because it is – we’ve seen Western Balkans summits come and go, usually amounting to little more than photo opportunities. The EU’s enlargement to the southeastern corner of the continent has proceeded at a snail’s pace, particularly since Croatia joined in 2013.
At the time, many diplomats privately said Zagreb had jumped on the back of a train that was already leaving the station. It sounded harsh but, in hindsight, was probably true.
“The EU’s enlargement to the Western Balkans was not much dealt with, because of the economic crisis, then the migration crisis, and now the epidemic. The time has come to focus on enlargement,” Janša said in Athens, announcing the informal summit in Slovenia in October.
What has changed now is the circumstances. While candidate countries Serbia and Montenegro have been in limbo for the past year, North Macedonia and Albania have more or less accomplished what was asked of them but, although the Commission recommended opening membership talks, several member states blocked it.
First, it was France and the Netherlands, who eventually relented.
Then Bulgaria stepped in, citing North Macedonia’s lack of willingness to engage in dialogue with Sofia and work out bilateral issues. This week, Austria’s foreign minister publicly opposed the idea of decoupling Tirana and Skopje and allowing Tirana to proceed alone, completing a one-two punch that effectively keeps both exactly where they are.
In the meantime, several non-papers have been circulated, advocating different ideas, from the banal promise of ‘more engagement with the region’ to the ghastly proposal of redrawing borders along ethnic lines – the underlying cause of bloody conflicts in the region in the 1990s.
“Some non-papers are being published only to accelerate a debate in the interest of one or the other side. Slovenia is trying to help the Western Balkan region by making a European perspective of the Western Balkans a reality,” Janša said.
“The informal conference that we will host will thus not be a conference on border changes but on the European perspective of Western Balkan countries.”
So what can we expect from the conference? The lines are clearly drawn.
There is a group of enlargement-friendly countries that are really pushing the agenda, saying the EU’s credibility is at stake if we fail, yet again, to open membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia.
There is also a group of neutral countries that will accept any majority view.
And then, there are a few staunch opponents who are not speaking up but are hiding behind Bulgaria’s current stance to keep enlargement on hold. Those argue that neither country is ready to join, while failing to elaborate why this should preclude the opening of membership talks.
All in all, the new summit, for all its good intentions, increasingly looks like much ado about nothing. Instead, we can paraphrase Jean-Claude Juncker: “there will be no enlargement in this Commission’s mandate”.
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Look out for…
- Tomorrow vice-president Jourová speaks at the Digital Czechia conference
- On Friday vice-president Vestager will speak on the topic of ‘How can EU countries get prepared for the Digital Age?’ at the Delphi Economic Forum
- On Friday commissioner Wojciechowski meets representatives of the Polish Sejm and holds a call with members of the agriculture committees of the parliaments of the Visegrád Group countries.