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TIRANA – Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said he did not expect an EU summit next week to pave the way for his country to begin membership talks and blamed Bulgaria.
All EU governments agreed in March 2020 to give the green light to Albania and North Macedonia to start accession negotiations. But negotiations have yet to begin after Bulgaria insisted it wanted concessions from North Macedonia in bilateral disputes over language, history and identity.
Although the blockade of Sofia only applies to North Macedonia, the EU has preferred to process the membership applications of Albania and North Macedonia together, so that Albania is also blocked.
The predicament of the Western Balkan countries is a timely warning of the vagaries of EU membership for Ukraine, which is pushing Russia amid war to become a candidate for EU membership at the summit next week. The EU granted this status to North Macedonia in 2005 and Albania in 2014, but has not even started talks with these two countries.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Bulgaria last week in a bid to overcome the blockade of Sofia ahead of the upcoming summit in Brussels, which takes place on Thursday and Friday next week. But, in an interview with POLITICO, Rama made it clear that he was pessimistic.
“I have no expectations. I think nothing will happen. Albania and North Macedonia will not formally open membership talks,” he said, sitting in a brown leather chair in his office in Tirana.
Asked if any EU leaders have signaled that talks could begin soon, Rama replied: “What signals can they give? It’s not about them. Again, this is Bulgaria. They all agree, they all support, they all think this should happen, and it should have happened by now. But their room for maneuver is limited from Bulgaria.
Rama, 57, a former basketball player and painter – who covered the walls of his office with his own colorful artwork – said he did not expect Bulgaria’s leaders to change their stance as they had made the dispute such a big issue that it was very difficult to back down.
“It’s a spiral. They entered into a spiral. And from this spiral it is very, very difficult to get out,” said Rama, who will attend a meeting of Western Balkan and EU leaders in Brussels ahead of the summit.
Bulgarian officials have defended their position, insisting that they are simply asking North Macedonia to respect previous commitments and seek to protect the rights of Bulgarians in the country.
North Macedonia, for its part, said it was making good faith efforts to engage with Sofia and stressed that a bilateral dispute should not delay the start of talks between the EU and a potential member. .
Rama has confirmed that if there is no progress this month, he will ask for Albania’s application for membership to be treated separately from that of North Macedonia – a step the EU has so far reluctant to take, officials saying it would be better for regional stability if the two neighbors could move forward together.
“If nothing happens in June, we will ask to be separated from this lost-in-translation couple,” Rama said. “I’m convinced that’s what we should be doing, so if [EU leaders] will agree or not, we will see.
The Albanian leader also said he supports French President Emmanuel Macron’s idea of a European political community – an organization that would be open to EU members and non-members.
” I think he’s right. It should have been done a long time ago…because it is visionary,” Rama said, while declining to go into specifics about what form the community should take.
“It can be discussed, but in principle, having a political community that organizes itself in different ways…is very important, and that’s beyond the European Union that we have today…which is clearly not capable of dealing with the challenges of the times that lie ahead of us,” he said.
Macron framed his plan in part as a response to the war in Ukraine, suggesting the proposed community would be a quicker way for Kyiv to integrate into European political structures than the lengthy EU membership process.
Russia’s war has also brought to light the divisions in the Western Balkans. Some countries – like Albania – have followed the EU in imposing sanctions on Russia while others – like Serbia – have not.
Although Serbia and Albania have often been at odds over the decades, Rama pleaded for understanding Belgrade’s position.
“You have to understand that Serbia is in a very different position from many others, because of its history, because of its special ties with Russia,” he said.
He said he believed Serbia should impose sanctions over time, but cautioned against pushing Belgrade, which relies heavily on Moscow for energy supplies, into doing too much too soon.
“Asking them to go there, right now, and across the gamut, it’s next to impossible… It’s suicidal for their economy,” he said.
Putting too much Western pressure on Serbia could be detrimental to the stability of the Western Balkan region, Rama warned.
“Sometimes we have to put up with each other and understand what’s going on, otherwise we can’t keep this community together for higher and better purposes,” he said.
“I think Serbia is on the right track. Of course, not with the speed we might like. But believe me, the other scenarios are really very bad for everyone and especially for this region,” Rama said.
Andrew Gray contributed to this article.