By Colin McIntyre
Plans to expand the European Union to include the volatile Western Balkans appear to be going ahead after an agreement ending a 27-year dispute over a name was signed by Greece and Macedonia.
The agreement to rename the country the Republic of Northern Macedonia, to assuage Greek fears that the original name implied a territorial claim to its northern province of the same name, was signed despite last minute objections by both countries’ leaders. It still requires approval by both parliaments and by the Macedonian people in a referendum.
Earlier this year, EU Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker, wrapping up his first tour of the region as Commission president, told Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia that the bloc was serious about integrating them, starting from 2025.
“Accession is not a dream but a reality, a reality that is going to come,” Juncker told reporters in Sofia after joining the region’s heads of state for a final meeting that followed a trip through each country.
Some EU governments are wary of letting in countries that only a couple of decades ago were engaged in bloody ethnic conflict and which have a poor record battling corruption and organized crime or maintaining the rule of law.
But alarmed by Russian, Chinese and Turkish efforts to increase their influence on its southern flank, the bloc has put enlargement back on the agenda.
Work yet to do
At an EU Summit in Sofia in May, the bloc’s leaders declared that the region belonged within the European Union, a statement that papered over concerns among many members that at least some of the candidates are not ready to meet the bloc’s stringent requirements to join.
They are also concerned about a backlash from voters at home still reeling from absorbing hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia, which has fueled the rise of nationalist and populist political parties.
The EU leaders were not prepared to endorse a Commission recommendation that accession talks should begin with Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, a decision that will be taken at an EU summit in Brussels in June. Membership talks have started with Serbia and Montenegro, while Croatia, which is also part of the region, is already a member of both the EU and NATO.
Macedonia’s hopes received a big boost earlier this month when the government announced it had settled the name dispute, only to have Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov refuse to approve the deal, and Greek opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis table a vote of no-confidence in the government of Alexis Tsipras over it.
However Tsipras survived the vote, and Ivanov will be forced to approve the deal if it wins final approval from the Macedonian parliament.
Meanwhile the other candidate Albania, the poorest country in Europe, is battling to overturn an unenviable reputation for corruption and organized crime, particularly drug-smuggling. It was once known as the center for cannabis-growing in Europe, but since a government crackdown gangs are reported to have turned to moving hard drugs like heroin and cocaine.
Albanian premier Edi Rama voiced his frustration at the Sofia summit that the EU seemed to be constantly raising the bar on entry for new members. “The process has become more and more difficult and less and less predictable for the countries.” However., he said he was “energized” by Albania’s prospects.
Turkey has been dropped off the list.
Other potential candidates also need to do some serious work on improving their image if they want to join the EU.
Serbia has to come to some sort of accommodation with Kosovo, which it still claims as a province despite the ethnic Albanian-majority territory’s declaration of independence in 2008.
Many Western leaders are concerned by the “soft autocracy” of Serbian President Aleksander Vukic, whose Serbian Progressive Party has a stranglehold over all aspects of government and the media, and who has made no secret of his support for Russia and refusal to join NATO.
Serbia is a major target of Moscow’s activities in the Balkans, which it sees as its traditional backyard, as the two Slavic and Eastern Orthodox Christian nations share deep cultural and historical ties.
As for the other two potential candidates, Bosnia is still deeply divided between Bosnian Muslim (Bozniak), Serb and Croat communities, while Kosovo’s independence is still not recognized by over 100 countries.
And Turkey, with its 77 million Muslim inhabitants bordering Syria, Iraq and Iran, which became an official candidate for EU membership in 1999, has been dropped off the list over its treatment of human rights, the independent media and its Kurdish minority.
The EU’s long-term budget proposal for 2012-2027, released in May, includes a Western Balkan Strategy for enlargement, but omits Turkey, thus treating it as a neighboring country rather than a candidate.
Colin McIntyre led Reuters coverage of the end of communism in Eastern Europe as chief correspondent in the region in the late 1980s. During 34 years at Reuters, he covered the last days of the Vietnam War and was posted to Indonesia, Ireland and London.