From: Alice Taylor
Open Balkan Leaders Air Grievances with EU at Western Balkan Summit

As not one single concrete agreement, decision, or solution has come out of the EU-Western Balkans Summit, the leaders of Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia held a press conference, where they levied significant criticism against the bloc, and Bulgaria, especially in the context of the war in Ukraine.

Enlargement was a key focus of the summit, in particular hopes of a starting date for negotiations for Skopje and Tirana, a lifting of the veto from Sofia, and visa liberalisation for Prishtina. But despite last-minute threats of boycotts, glimmers of hope, and a morning of closed-door discussions, there was no tangible progress.

At a press conference following the morning’s summit, three Western Balkan leaders aired their grievances to the media.

First speaking in Macedonian, Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacesvski took to the floor looking flustered and irate.

“Russian aggression is a threat to all countries, and enlargement should be seen as a necessity and an investment in the security of the Western Balkans,” he said, speaking of his “dissatisfaction in the dynamics of the enlargement process.”

He continued by highlighting that his country has been stuck in the waiting room for 18 years and that the lack of progress today “is a serious blow to the EU.”

Speaking impassionately, he said, “we cannot be stuck in this situation because a single country fails to unblock…we should not allow bilateral issues to become a multilateral issue.”

The prime minister continued that his country has changed its name, implemented reforms, and done all that has been asked of it through a desire to join the EU. However, at the last moment, Bulgaria has “decided to go back to the past and reimpose a blocking that doesn’t help anyone.”

He listed again the requirements of Skopje for any agreement and said that in its current form, the proposal from France is not acceptable.

“It is current form. It is unacceptable to me, citizens, coalition partners, president, the whole of the Republic of North Macedonia.”

He added, “All 27 nations, countries, they [joined the EU] proudly with diversities, full respect of each other and all linguistic, cultural and historical matters, none of these issues was disputed by the 27 member states when they joined the EU. This is what we want, nothing more, nothing less.

“Deep sorrow for the EU”

Continuing his defiant tone from the morning’s doorstep, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama opened his speech by saying he has “deep sorrow for the EU. I feel sorry for them. I hope we can help them.”

He spoke of his frustration with the EU over it being “incapable of liberating two hostages”, referring to Albania and North Macedonia, “it doesn’t make a good impression, he said, particularly in the context of the war.

Rama explained that the EU has a much bigger problem than Albania or the Western Balkans. “They had the most wonderful words for us. They all said they felt really bad that they couldn’t deliver. Some with more emphasis, others with less. But none said they felt bad about the European Union.”

He continued to levy criticism at the European Union, saying the spirit of enlargement is “crooked” and the disgraceful behaviour of Bulgaria is “the most stunning expression of this”.

“Enlargement has gone from a shared vision of community to a kidnapping vehicle of individual states.”

Rama mentioned that people say Russian President Vladimir Putin is sick, but that “this place here is not looking very healthy”, pointing fingers at the EU.

“I told them it feels good and bad to be with them. It feels very good because we are Europeans…but it feels bad because we still can’t be here as Europeans but as guests in a divided house. And it’s very concerning that even a pandemic, an assault on a global scale, a tragic assault, nor a very threatening war that can turn into a tragic global war have been able to unite them,” the prime minister said.

Turning attention to Kosovo, he described the lack of visa liberalisation as “kidnapping”.

“Under a Yugoslav dictator, they could move and go everywhere. Since they were liberated, their liberators are keeping them hostage. This is a shame,” Rama said.

The Albanian leader also supported the French proposal and added that the Open Balkan initiative is necessary for the region’s future and its people.

“[Europe] is a nice place, nice people, nice pictures, nice words. But it would be nicer if they delivered. One day we will become nice members of the EU,” said Rama, adding later, “maybe next century.”

“So-called Kosovo, or whatever you want to call it”

Looking downcast, Serbian President Aleksander Vucic attacked the media for reporting on his country’s hesitance and, in some cases, refusal to enforce EU sanctions.

“2629 articles in European media about Serbia after the Russia incursion…about Serbia jeopardising a whole region, Bosnia, Kosovo, or so-called Kosovo or whatever you want to call it. Have you ever seen a single apology from these media?” he asked.

He stated that the Open Balkan initiative was an idea between the three countries and was not subject to any external influence, specifically denying pressure from Russia or Hungary.

“We did it by ourselves; we didn’t need anyone else. Three Balkan nations sat together and found a solution for some of their problems. Is this forbidden? Should it be banned?” he asked.

He said that while he doesn’t share the same frustrations as Albania and North Macedonia, he hopes for a resolution of the problematic situation.

“They are defending their countries and national interests in a very courageous way…all of us will be in a much better mood in December than today,” he concluded, nodding to the next summit scheduled for the end of the year.

The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell spoke after the summit’s first session over his disappointment over a lack of progress.

“Today we should be launching negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia and I cannot hide my disappointment. My disappointment is that of many people,” he said after the meeting.

“We should be launching this, but there is still hope,” he added, noting that, “I don’t know what the Bulgarian parliament can do in the next hours…I am very disappointed at the way things have been done, a single country blocking the whole process.”