SOFIA — It wasn’t a renewal of the wedding vows because the big ceremony never happened. It was two partners declaring they still want to be engaged — even though one is now playing hard to get.
Fifteen years ago, EU leaders told their western Balkan counterparts at a summit in Thessaloniki that they belong together — and their countries could one day join the European Union. But only one of those countries, Croatia, has become an EU member while the others languish.
Now, alarmed by the rising influence of Russia, Turkey and others on its southern flank, the EU has put the region back on the agenda and staged a summit in the Bulgarian capital on Thursday to try to get relations with six western Balkan countries back on track.
The gathering ended with warm words from European Council President Donald Tusk, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov on boosting ties with — and within — the region, which was plagued by wars and civil unrest in the 1990s and now struggles with corruption, organized crime and weak democratic institutions.
But French President Emmanuel Macron struck a skeptical note, insisting the EU should first focus on reforming itself before embarking on any more enlargement adventures. And a boycott by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy over the presence of Kosovo, which Madrid and four other EU capitals do not recognize, was a reminder of other divisions over the region.
Here are five takeaways from the Sofia summit:
1. Future EU members? It’s all about perspective
The final summit declaration expresses “unequivocal support” for the “European perspective” of the western Balkans. The phrase is deliberately vague. The Thessaloniki text proclaimed that the “future of the Balkans is within the European Union” — but such a clear statement no longer has universal support among EU member countries. A number of governments are not convinced that all the countries in the region belong in their club. They also fear a backlash from voters, as opposition to enlargement has grown substantially over the past 15 years.
Some leaders went further than the official text. Angela Merkel, who has emerged as a champion of the western Balkans, talked about “a clear membership perspective” and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz spoke about progress on the countries’ “path into the European Union.” But Macron preferred to talk about “anchoring” the western Balkans to Europe.
2. Tirana and Skopje left to sweat
The European Commission has recommended the start of membership talks for both Albania and Macedonia but key EU leaders were not willing to endorse that view in Sofia.
Decision time will come at another summit, in Brussels in June, but both candidates will have to do more between now and then to stand a chance. Macedonia has to solve a long-running dispute with Greece over the country’s name and Albania is under pressure to crack down harder on organized crime and illegal migrants.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama expressed frustration about new conditions being added before membership talks can even begin. “The process has become more and more difficult and less and less predictable for the countries,” he said. However, despite skeptical comments by Macron and others, Rama said he is “energized” about Albania’s prospects after the summit.
After meeting his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said the two countries hope to reach a solution to the name dispute before the June summit. “But it depends on both sides,” he added. “It depends on a lot of other participants — presidents of the countries, leaders of the opposition, other political leaders and finally on the citizens of both countries.”
3. No one’s joining any time soon
Juncker sprang a surprise last year when he suggested Serbia and Montenegro, which have both begun membership talks, could join the bloc by 2025. EU officials say they put a target date out there to give political leaders in the western Balkans an incentive to revitalize flagging reform efforts. But the date has not gone down well with many EU governments, who feel it raised unrealistic expectations in the region.
Asked what she thought of the 2025 goal, Merkel was blunt. “I don’t think anything of this target date,” she told a news conference. “Membership must be based on factual progress. It’s not about a time horizon, it’s about what’s been achieved — on rule of law, on fighting corruption and other conditions such as border disputes.”
4. Kosovo conundrum endures
Talking of territorial disputes … Ironically, one of the countries causing the most headaches for the West in the Balkans would not exist without Western intervention. NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign ended Serb repression of the ethnic Albanian majority there and put it on a path to a 2008 declaration of independence. But Belgrade continues to regard Kosovo as a renegade province and, with the backing of Russia and China, has prevented it joining the United Nations.
The fact that five EU countries don’t recognize Kosovo makes international gatherings even more fraught. In the Sofia declaration, the six western Balkan states were described as “partners” to avoid upsetting those who do not regard Kosovo as a country. Western Balkan leaders at the summit were introduced without titles such as “president” for similar reasons.
The EU has made clear that neither Kosovo nor Serbia has any chance of entering the bloc until they resolve their differences. But that is a very tough nut to crack. Many Serbs regard Kosovo not only as part of their territory but as the cradle of their nation. Serbian President Aleksander Vučić would face a nationalist backlash if he agreed to recognize its independence.
5. Sorry Boyko, it’s not Slovakia
Summit host Borisov railed against Western European attitudes toward the Balkans. He noted that if the entire western Balkans were one country, its gross domestic product would amount to €96 billion — the same as Slovakia’s — and its population would be lower than Romania’s.
“Is that a big fear? Is that what is threatening the European Union?” he demanded at the closing news conference.
Even Tusk, who has taken a close interest in the region, felt he had to point out that its recent history was rather darker and more complex than Slovakia’s. “When it comes to troubles per capita, the western Balkans are much bigger than, for example, Germany and France together,” Tusk said.
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David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting.