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Enlargement back on EU’s agenda at Western Balkans summit

TIRANA, ALBANIA (AP) – The situation in Ukraine has put the European Union’s (EU) expansion at the top of the agenda as officials from the Western Balkans and EU leaders gather for a summit intended to reinvigorate the whole enlargement process.

The EU’s executive commission has repeatedly promised Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia that they have futures within the bloc. But the progress of the six nations toward getting there stalled in recent years. The EU last admitted a new member – Croatia, which is also part of the Balkans – in 2013. Before that, Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007. With the withdrawal of the United Kingdom (UK) in 2021, the EU now has 27 member nations.

Although divisions among them on the pace of accession talks and some complicated bilateral issues remain, EU officials think it’s more crucial than ever to make clear the six Western Balkans nations belong in the European family.

“Enlargement policy is among the top three priorities of EU leaders,” EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi said during a visit to Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, last week.

“The only real long-term solution for peace, stability and prosperity is EU membership.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski and Czech Republic’s Prime Minister Petr Fiala shake hands prior to a meeting at the European Union headquarters in Brussels. PHOTO: AP

EU leaders agreed in June to make Moldova and Ukraine candidates for membership and said Georgia would be eligible for candidacy once the country met some goals defined by the European Commission.

A month later, the EU started membership negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia following years of delays. Bosnia moved a small step closer on its path to join the powerful economic bloc when the commission advised member countries in October to grant it candidate status despite continuing criticism of the way the nation is run.

Kosovo has only started the first step, with the signing of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement. It said it would apply for candidate status later this month.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg insisted last week that supporting Moldova, Georgia and Bosnia was crucial in the context of the war. Stoltenberg noted that Bosnia, where interference and ethnic tensions long have created political instability, is “important for stability in the whole of the Western Balkans”. But the problem for the countries-in-waiting is that the EU has not deemed their economies and political institutions ready for integration into the EU’s single market of open trade and Western democratic ideals.

“None is close to joining the EU,” said Centre for European Reform researcher Luigi Scazzieri, a think tank based in London. “They must all overcome substantial hurdles to meet the Copenhagen criteria, which define the EU’s standards on strong democratic institutions, a functioning market economy and the ability to take on the obligations of membership.”