US seeks to accelerate EU-Balkans integration, senior official says

WASHINGTON – The United States wants to see the integration of the Western Balkans into the European Union accelerate and strive to restart the process, a senior US State Department official said.

Gabriel Escobar, who was appointed earlier this month Acting Under Secretary of State for Central and Southern Europe, overseeing a region he first served in various capacities from 1998 to 2001, also announced that the United States had appointed a diplomat to help drive stalled electoral reform in Bosnia. -Herzegovina ahead of key elections next year.

Escobar, who most recently served as Deputy Head of Mission at the US Embassy in Serbia, expressed frustration over the lack of movement regarding the EU membership of the Balkan states over the past two years. decades.

“Going back 20 years later and seeing that there hasn’t been a lot of progress on that front was a bit disappointing,” Escobar told RFE / RL on Sept. 17 in a State Department interview on its priorities and concerns for the region. “We would like to see faster integration.

The European Union has lost its appetite for rapid membership expansion after bringing 13 countries into the club since 2004, most of them from less wealthy former Communist states.

Croatia was the last country to join the 27-member bloc when its membership was completed in 2013.

Escobar said the European Union and the countries of the Western Balkans – which include North Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina – have challenges to overcome in making integration a reality, but said he hoped the US engagement “could get both sides back on track.

He will have his work cut out for him.

Bulgaria earlier this year blocked the start of EU membership talks with North Macedonia over a language dispute and historic grievances. EU rules require consensus from its 27 members on many important issues, including expansion.

As Albania’s candidacy for EU membership will be considered in tandem with North Macedonia, the veto also had an impact on Tirana.

Escobar said it was wrong for Bulgaria to use a bilateral dispute to stop North Macedonia’s European aspirations.

He said some “good solutions” had been put forward to solve the problem and that Washington would continue to push Sofia to find a compromise.

“They make it a multilateral issue that affects us all,” he said of Sofia’s actions, adding that it was a “strategic imperative” to bring in North Macedonia and the Albania in the EU.

Escobar said he would like the North Macedonian and Albanian membership talks to start this year, adding that they “deserved it”.

Serbia-Kosovo dispute

Another difficult problem that Escobar faces as he seeks to defend the integration of the EU in the region is the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo.

Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Belgrade and the intractable dispute prevents them both from potentially joining the EU.

Over 110 countries recognize Kosovo’s independence, including the United States and most of the EU.

In September 2020, the Trump administration negotiated an agreement between the two countries to normalize economic and human ties as part of a confidence-building exercise in the hopes that it would eventually lead to a political breakthrough.

However, little has been achieved so far, analysts say.

Escobar said the most immediate way to build trust is to resolve the missing persons issue. More than 1,600 people, mostly Kosovars, went missing during the Kosovo war of 1998-99.

“This is a humanitarian issue that should not be blocked by political conflict. There are families who have been waiting for years to figure out what happened to their loved ones. I just don’t understand why there would be a lack. compromise, ”he said. .

Reform of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina will also be a handful for Escobar.

Some observers have warned in recent years that the political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is deteriorating and could separate the multi-ethnic nation, affecting its hopes of joining the EU.

Escobar said electoral reform is one of the first steps to make it a “more functional” state.

The country’s election laws prohibit a minority outside of the three main ethnicities – Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian – from running for high office and analysts said this only deepens the ethnic divide.

Earlier this year, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on the tripartite presidency to work on at least modest reforms, including “limited constitutional change … to reform the electoral system”.

With that goal in mind, Escobar announced that Matt Palmer, a deputy secretary of state who had been responsible for the Balkan region, would be Washington’s henchman for electoral reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“I am very happy that Matt [Palmer] is staying there to do this part because he just has huge knowledge, huge contacts and a great vision of how the elections in Bosnia should work, ”Escobar said.

Escobar said the elections must be “more transparent … more in line with the real will of the people”.

Bosnia will vote for parliament in 2022, but the country’s constitution prohibits changing electoral laws in the year of an election, putting pressure on Palmer and others involved in the talks to do something by the year. January 1st.

Tanya Domi, an expert on Bosnia and an assistant assistant professor at Columbia University, told RFE / RL that she feared the Biden administration was seeking a reform deal with local political elites that could resolve the issue. one of the problems but “won’t change the basic problems on the floor.”

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