Frustrated Balkans warn Ukraine over EU ‘illusions’

BRUSSELS (AFP) – Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama on Thursday (June 23) hailed Ukraine potentially joining his country as a candidate for European Union membership but warned against any unreasonable hopes for a speedy process.

“North Macedonia is a candidate for 17 years if I have not lost count, Albania since eight, so welcome to Ukraine,” Mr Rama said as he arrived for an EU summit with western Balkan countries.

“It’s a good thing to give Ukraine the status. But I hope that Ukrainian people will not make many illusions.” The Balkan leaders are deeply frustrated about their stalled bids to join the EU, with Bulgaria blocking the start of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia over a dispute with Skopje.

“It’s a disgrace that a Nato country, Bulgaria, kidnaps two other Nato countries, namely, Albania and North Macedonia, in the midst of hot war in Europe’s backyard with 26 other countries sitting still in a scary show of impotence,” Mr Rama said.

Mr Rama, along with the leaders of North Macedonia and Serbia, had threatened to boycott the EU meeting in protest against the lack of progress – but in the ended decided to show.

Bulgaria’s EU counterparts have been pushing it to accept a compromise deal in its long-standing historical and culture dispute with North Macedonia in order to clear the path.

But the collapse of the Bulgarian government following a no-confidence vote on Wednesday has thrown the move further into doubt.

“The states and citizens of the Western Balkans have been waiting for almost 20 years for the possibility of becoming members of the European Union,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said.

“In my view, it is of the utmost importance that this promise becomes credible.”

EU chief Charles Michel said there was “a will to re-energise” the accession process for the Balkan countries.

But Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said bluntly that he expected “nothing” from Thursday’s gathering with the EU’s 27 leaders.

Brussels is worried that the lack of progress for the Balkans could push the region closer to Russia and China.

Some members of the bloc have been trying to use the push for candidate status for Ukraine – and its neighbour Moldova – to breathe new impetus into getting the Balkans on board.

But there has been annoyance with Serbia that it had failed to align with EU sanctions against its ally Russia over the invasion of Ukraine.

A political crisis in Bosnia-Hercegovina that has stirred fears of the country’s break-up has hampered efforts to make it a candidate to join.

European diplomats said that the country could be offered a clearer road map of what it needs to do to achieve candidate status.