The author of this brief was present at the 2003 Thessaloniki summit, where EU leaders promised the countries of the Western Balkans that they would join the bloc when they were ready.
It was a critical moment. The enlargement of the EU was under way, and already the following year, in 2004, eight Eastern European countries, plus Malta and Cyprus, became members of the EU. Three years later, Bulgaria and Romania have followed suit. Croatia was an exception, having joined it alone in 2013, thanks to its good image and the support of major capitals, including Washington.
Even then, some had already noticed that Zagreb had jumped on the last train to the EU, as it was already leaving the station.
At that time, EU enlargement was still considered one of the EU’s biggest projects, along with the euro, since the first coins started circulating in 2002.
I also had the honor of presenting Jacques Delors with his very first euro coin. We met in Paris and I bought the parts at the nearest post office. He looked at the euro coin with tears in his eyes, then returned it to me. Delors was the father of enlargement and the euro, but apparently no one had sent him a free parts kit.
In Thessaloniki, the atmosphere was festive; the hosts overwhelmed the guests with delicious food, cultural program and freebies (even journalists received gifts, there were so many largesse back then). Food and wine were plentiful and free.
These are details, but they are also important. Fast forward to the present day, and the atmosphere is totally different. From Thessaloniki I wrote to the Bulgarian newspaper I worked for that Bulgaria should hurry with its membership as it may soon end.
Looking back, I don’t think Bulgaria would be accepted into the EU today, any more than any of the six candidates from the Western Balkans.
Diplomats now say the Thessaloniki promise is no longer valid. By the way, they cite Bulgaria and Romania as examples of rushed accession which has pushed many Europeans against further enlargement.
Bulgaria looks like a troublemaker due to its current veto against Skopje, although when other countries including France vetoed Skopje it was seen as legitimate. So let’s face it: Bulgaria is not the real one, and certainly not the only one, why enlargement is on hold.
As I write these lines, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is on a whirlwind tour of the capitals of the Western Balkans, trying to reassure them ahead of the EU-Western Balkans summit in Brdo, Slovenia next week.
In fact, the leaders of the six Western Balkan countries understand the EU mindset; they have long relied on EU funding, but much less on the prospect of real membership, or “the European perspective of the countries of the Western Balkans”, as the Thessaloniki declaration puts it.
It is more delicate when it comes to public opinion. The people of the Western Balkans are broadly pro-EU, but they also feel offended by what looks like a series of broken promises, selfishness and hypocrisy on the part of the EU. Russia and China, and Turkey in the case of Bosnia and Albania, appear to them as more honest, or at least direct, partners.
What, then, could a Western Balkans summit bring, if not underline mutual disenchantment? The Commission can put money on the table, but it never reaches ordinary people. Leaders can speak of unity in a better future. But who believes that?
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Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has pledged to make 2022 the Year of European Youth, which youth organizations say is a good start, but not enough. “It’s not just about having a seat in the room, but really having the space to express our views and then ultimately to be heard.”
Lawmakers voted on Tuesday to virtually ban fossil gas in EU funding rules for cross-border energy infrastructure, known as the TEN-E regulation. Natural gas infrastructure will no longer be eligible for EU funding under the revised regulation, but projects can potentially receive funding if they help member states move away from more polluting fossil fuels, such as coal, lignite, peat and oil shale.
Speaking of loopholes: The European Court of Auditors has condemned weak and poorly enforced policies which they say give farmers a “free pass” to abuse the use of water. Although farmers have made gains in water efficiency, auditors concluded that the amount of water used by industry is still “unsustainable”.
Still before the courts: the General Court of the EU annulled two agreements between the EU and Morocco that applied to Western Sahara, a territory occupied by Morocco. The court ruled in favor of the Polisario Front, which had lodged a complaint against the European Commission, the Council and Morocco.
And in another post-Brexit row, London has only granted fishing licenses in its territorial waters to 12 small French boats out of 47 applications, which officials say is “fully in line” with trade agreements between the UK and EU. But the French Navy Minister said the policy was unfair and that “French fishing should not be taken hostage by the British for political purposes”.
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In an exclusive video interview, Moldovan Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita told EURACTIV about the landslide victories in the country’s recent parliamentary and presidential elections. She says citizens want the “European model” – public institutions working for the public good, not for corrupt interests.
Pay attention to…
- The EESC is organizing the 8th Western Balkans Civil Society Forum in Skopje, focusing on improving the accession process.
- The Slovenian Presidency hosts the conference on “Space for a green and digital recovery”.
- Vice-President for Democracy and Demography Dubravka Šuica participates in the Athens Forum on Democracy.
- Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton is traveling to South Korea to discuss digital and technology with officials and industry leaders.
Views are those of the author
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/ Alice Taylor]