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EU and the Balkans. Summit in Sofia. Commitments and promises, but no talk of new accessions (for now)

EU heads of government and State have arrived in the Bulgarian capital for a meeting with their “colleagues” from Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. The focus of the meeting is “connectivity” inside the region and with EU28 member Countries. Balkan Countries are requested, once again, to promote democratic, economic and social reforms, while the EU pledges funding and support to achieve stability and development. The opinion of an expert, Vessela Tcherneva. The explicit support of the Catholic Church: the remarks of bishop Proykov and bishop Hocevar

Il presidente della Commissione Ue Juncker con il premier bulgaro Borisov

The European perspective of the Western Balkans is reconfirmed, along with new ways to enhance mutual cooperation. Effective adhesion will only take place when the Balkan countries “comply” with Brussels’ demands. This spirit will characterise the meeting between the heads of Government and State of EU 28 Member Countries with their counterparts from 6 Western Balkan Countries: Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina e Kosovo. The summit is scheduled to take place on Thursday May 17, preceded by an informal dinner attended by all political leaders on the evening of Wednesday 16. SIR recorded the opinion of Balkan bishops and the comment of the expert, Vessela Tcherneva.

Creating relationships. The leaders of EU Countries didn’t sit around the same table with their Balkan counterparts since the 2003 Thessaloniki summit. But new winds are blowing in Europe today, the economy plunged into a crisis, followed by Brexit along with the resurgence of nationalisms and populist movements. Yet the Western Balkans, long-established EU neighbours, scarred by war and burdened by internal problems, were there waiting for their turn … Without the EU, their fragile political situation risks escalating into new conflicts. In Sofia, the leaders of EU countries, together with the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and the President of the European Council Donald Tusk, will speak not so much of enlargement as of “connectivity”, i.e. strengthening links between the EU and the region through infrastructures , the so-called “human and digital connectivity.” They will seek ways to work together to tackle common challenges such as security, migration, geopolitical development and good neighbourly relations.

The zenith of the Bulgarian presidency. Another Balkan country, already a member of the EU, Bulgaria, currently holding the six-month presidency of the Union, decided that facilitating the integration of its neighbours would be the first priority during its term in office. “The time has come for the EU to look beyond its internal problems and extend its concerns to the Balkans”, Vessela Tcherneva, Programme Director and Head of European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) Sofia Office. In her opinion, “the upcoming Austrian presidency will continue the work carried out by Sofia for the Western Balkans.” In fact, since the beginning of 2018, Brussels’ approach to South-East European countries has been marked by increasingly positive signs: in February the EU Commission adopted a strategy for an enlargement perspective of the Western Balkans while the 6 interested countries were visited by European summits. “The history of the Balkans, which resembles an endless horror film – said Donald Tusk in Skopje with little grace – could turn into an Oscar-winning production with a happy ending.”

The bishops’ voice. The Catholic Church, that through COMECE, (Commission of the episcopates of the European Community) the official body representing European bishops, voiced its support to EU accession of the Western Balkan countries since the beginning of the process, has dedicated a special reflection to the issue in view of the Sofia summit. “Europe is more than an economic or geographic union” said Msgr. Christo Proykov, Apostolic Exarch, President of the Bulgarian bishops, quoting the words of Pope Francis during the “(Re) thinking Europe” congress held in the Vatican last autumn. In his opinion, “the Western Balkans, in the light of their history and culture, are already part of the European family.” “In these lands – he added – where the West and the East meet, different religions have lived together for centuries.” For the prelate, cultural and religious diversity must be promoted and preserved in the European integration process.”

The archbishop of Belgrade, Mons. Stanislav Hocevar, added, “the EU is a great reality. It should be remembered that is was founded by Germany and France, two former enemy countries.” “Since the onset of European integration, member Countries have never waged war against each other”, he pointed out. Yet in the Balkans, reconciliation and peace remain unsolved problems.

Need for dialogue and interaction. For the archbishop of Belgrade “unfortunately today every Country sees only what goes on in their own backyard, not the good of the community. Widespread selfishness hinders the Balkans’ integration.” “We need dialogue instead – added Msgr. Proykov –. I hope that on May 17 Sofia will become an occasion for dialogue and solidarity between EU Countries and their Balkan partners.” “It’s very important – the prelate said – to encourage the meeting between people, authorities; to create personal contacts and platforms that further the exchange of opinions.” In his view, “in this process the local Catholic Churches can play a key role owing to their good mutual relations.”.

Without major enthusiasm. Hence, what can we expect from the Sofia meeting? “On May 17 we won’t see the great enthusiasm of Thessaloniki”, observed Vessela Tcherneva, who believes the final declaration of the summit will be restrained and markedly pragmatic. I believe that the message to Western Balkan countries will be to continue the reforms and honour its commitments, without great promises from Brusselsas “for now, West-European societies don’t look favourably on further EU enlargement.” A Eurobarometer survey shows that 49% of Europeans oppose further enlargement, with higher percentages in Germany and France, respectively 67% and 68%.

The collateral of reforms and peace. Moreover, on the other side there are six Balkan Countries: negotiations have already begun with Serbia and Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia are waiting for the green light from the EU Council, while Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are potential candidates. It is largely believed that European integration is a guaranty for reforms and peace in this fragile region. But Juncker has said on several occasions that no further enlargement is planned for now. Such a proposal was tabled for not before 2019, and it was later postponed to 2024. Tcherneva pointed out: “In recent times we saw a strong influence in the region on the part of Russia, China and Turkey.” “Probably even EU leaders have reflected on whether they would be willing to leave the Western Balkans under the influence of these countries, and the honest answer was no”, the expert said. When asked if the EU should step up its commitments in the region, Tcherneva replied: “Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are already recipients of aids of all kinds, but the EU cannot create new colonies. It’s up to each Country to elect leaders capable of fostering economic growth and full democracy.” “Unfortunately – the expert concluded – the Balkan Countries are fragile countries with a scarcely developed economy.”

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