17 May, 2018 / By BalkanInsight
Much work is to be done before the EU can take in new members. That was the main message that resonated through Sofia’s National Palace of Culture on Thursday, as EU and Western Balkan leaders met for the long-awaited summit.
French President Emmanuel Macron echoed this, saying that he did not favour movement before “we have all certainties and genuine reforms made”.
“No progress was made on enlargement; this is a question that remains for the June EU Summit,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said more bluntly, a few hours earlier.
Even the Macedonian and Greek leaders, Zoran Zaev and Alexis Tsipras, who made the most substantive breakthrough of the day, were careful to lay out the road of domestic negotiations about the “name” compromise that lies ahead, instead of focusing on the achievement itself.
“We have pinpointed one option that may be acceptable for both sides [but] we have to consult with the other political factors in our countries, with the presidents and with the other political leaders,” Zaev cautioned in a press conference.
“I believe we have covered a major part of the distance, but there is still distance to cover,” his Greek colleague added.
As for the other important impasse that is blocking the paths of two prospective EU members, the stalled Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, mixed messages came from the two heads of state.
During the “family photoshoot”, Kosovo’s Hashim Taci and Serbia’s Alexander Vucic were seen close to each other, while they later shook hands when they signed a memorandum of understanding with the EU under the approving gaze of Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov.
But in his private national press briefing, Vucic sounded downbeat, saying that it was “not realistic to expect Serbia to give everything without getting anything”, and adding that Belgrade had made all efforts to achieve the goals of the Brussels Agreement, but was unhappy about Kosovo meeting its own commitments. “I am not a big optimist,” Vucic concluded.
While the EU side reaffirmed its determination “to strengthen and intensify its engagement at all levels to support the region’s political, economic and social transformation” in the Sofia Summit Declaration, the focus lay elsewhere.
The words “integration” and “enlargement” were notably missing from the final document, signed by the 28 EU leaders and endorsed by their six Balkan partners. Instead, the highlights pointed in the direction of security, digital economy and investment.
EU Council President Donald Tusk tried to bridge this gap in a statement, saying that “the connectivity programme is not an alternative or substitute to enlargement.
“It is the way to use more effectively the time between now and tomorrow. I see no future for the Western Balkans other than the European. There is no alternative,” he said.
The three-page document itself contained words about the “shared commitment to European values”, the “unequivocal support for the European perspective” of the Western Balkan states and the commitment to “the primacy of democracy and the rule of law”.
A four-page annex, called the “Sofia Priority Agenda”, sets the foundation for the creation of instruments for the support of the rule of law and good governance, including case-based peer-reviewed missions and backing for media pluralism.
It promises better cooperation in the fields of anti-terrorism and border control, doubles Erasmus+ financing, dedicated to the region, and expands the Western Balkans Investment Framework, by launching a set of new connectivity projects. These include the “Peace highway” between Nis in Serbia and Pristina in Kosovo and the Blue Highway along the Adriatic coast.
Last, but not least, the annex points to the completion of the Regional Electricity Market that will later be integrated within the EU’s own Internal Energy Market.
Apart from the Western Balkans, the EU leaders were preoccupied with America’s abandonment of the Iran deal and the threats of a tariff war between the US and Europe.
Domestic EU issues, such as the “Mobility Directive” debacle, that has sets Central and Eastern European states against the European Commission and France, also produced heated debates, with Bulgarian truck drivers protesting over tougher EU regulations in this sector with road blocades.