Dimiter Tzantchev spoke at a press conference organised by API/IPA, the International Press Association, presenting the priorities of the six-month Bulgarian presidency, which started on 1 January. Bulgaria has already made clear that one of its priorities is to revive the EU membership prospects of the six Western Balkan countries.
“We definitely see the Western Balkans as part of Europe. […] The hopes for a European future in that part of the continent unfortunately receded in the last years and there is a risk of a gap being left by the EU. Of course, we could see other powers that are not European, showing more interest in that region,” the Bulgarian diplomat said.
He did not name the non-European powers but numerous reports suggest Russian appetites in Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia, Chinese interests in Macedonia and Serbia, Turkish interests in Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as Saudi and Wahhabi interests in the latter.
The centre-piece of the Bulgarian presidency is the Sofia summit on 17 May, bringing together the leaders of the 28 EU members and those of the six Western Balkan hopefuls.
Asked about the specific timetable for Western Balkan accession, Tzantchev said this would depend on the EU member states and on the progress made by the six countries: Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.
He said that each of the six countries was a specific case. “Some are more advanced, such as Montenegro and Serbia, some others like FYROM (Macedonia) and Albania hope very much that they could start the negotiations, some others have a lot to do”, he said.
Asked by EURACTIV about Macedonia [which he referred to as FYROM, as the Commission officially calls this country] Tzantchev said that under the new government of Social Democrat Zoran Zaev, there was a “new will” to unlock the bilateral issues that have been preventing the country from starting accession talks.
Macedonia obtained the status of an EU candidate in 2005, but the long-running name dispute with neighbouring Greece has prevented it from opening accession talks. Croatia, another former Yugoslav republic, became a candidate in 2004 and joined in 2013.
Tzantchev praised the bilateral treaty signed last year between Sofia and Skopje and said his country was aware of the efforts by the Zaev government to improve relations with Greece. This, he said, could pave the way for the Commission to propose opening accession negotiations in the next regular progress report, expected in April.
On the same issue, the Commission chief spokesperson Margaritis Schinas said the EU executive was welcoming positive contacts between Skopje and Greece on the name issue, in the context of which more meetings were scheduled for later this month.
The Commission is due to publish its ‘enhanced’ Western Balkans strategy in February, which is expected to contain some indicative dates for the enlargement process.
A Commission official told EURACTIV the EU executive had kept a low profile on the name dispute between Macedonia and Greece because it was a UN-mediated process. However, there were realistic hopes for a positive decision to start accession talks the during Bulgarian presidency.