As the coronavirus crisis hardens Europe’s borders and drains the continent’s resources, Brussels is trying to reassure its Balkan neighbours it hasn’t forgotten about their needs and membership dreams.
An EU summit with six Western Balkans countries, all of whom aspire to join the bloc, was originally scheduled to kick off Wednesday in Zagreb.
But the meeting will now be held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 250,000 lives, over half of them in Europe.
The talks comes as the EU tries to beat back accusations of an initially slow response to helping the Balkans navigate the health crisis, whereas China was quick to deliver — and publicise — shipments of masks and other gear.
Since then the bloc has rolled out a series of aid packages, including 3.3 billion euros ($3.6 billion) announced last week, while officials have also been highlighting decades of EU investment in the region’s healthcare systems.
Wednesday’s talks will focus on continued cooperation in the fight against the pandemic, EU officials said at a briefing.
The bloc will also stress that the EU remains the dominant player and partner in the Balkans, despite recent overtures from China and Russia.
“The EU is and remains number one. Russia or China, despite what some claim, do not come even close,” an EU official said.
A draft of the summit’s conclusions seen by AFP stressed that the bloc’s “support and cooperation goes far beyond what any other partner has provided to the region,” and that this “deserves public acknowledgement”.
In Serbia in particular, President Aleksandar Vucic publicly lambasted the EU for a lack of solidarity at the start of the crisis while heaping praise on China’s assistance.
Enlargement for another day
With fewer than 500 confirmed virus deaths, the Western Balkans has so far avoided the devastation seen in Europe’s worst-affected countries.
But the poor region’s weak economies are bracing for a painful economic fallout — and wondering how their future fits into an EU focused on its own survival.
Of the EU hopefuls, Montenegro and Serbia are furthest along in their membership talks, with the earliest possible date of entry slated for 2025.
Behind them are North Macedonia and Albania who, after months of punishing delays, were given the green light in March to embark on the lengthy process but without a concrete start date.
At the back of the pack are Kosovo and Bosnia, who are still hoping to be granted candidate status.
But according to EU officials, enlargement will not figure on the agenda of Wednesday’s meeting, aside from encouraging Balkan governments to continue reforms necessary for their accession bids.
“Increased EU assistance will be linked to tangible progress in the rule of law”, socio-economic reforms and the “adherence to EU values, rules and standards”, said the draft declaration.
Some warn the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic has pushed the accession process even further down the EU’s agenda.
“The enlargement issue is now very low on the list of EU priorities,” said Croatian political analyst Senada Selo Sabic, noting it had not been high to begin with.
Ever since Croatia, which currently holds the EU presidency, became the last country to join the bloc in 2013, the appetite for adding new member states has shrunk considerably while the timeline keeps slipping towards the horizon.
Last October, France and the Netherlands sparked outrage by insisting on redrawing the membership process before agreeing to begin talks with Skopje and Tirana.
That move dented EU credibility in the region, where many viewed the bloc as failing to keep promises to Skopje and Tirana, despite significant reforms on their part.
It also prompted warnings that the EU risked opening the door to outside influence on its doorstep, notably from China and Russia.