Hey Balkans, you’re still not good enough!
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Hey Balkans, you’re still not good enough!

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The Sofia Summit kicked off yesterday, but nothing unusual happened. As expected, the European Union dashed membership hopes of the Balkan States, who have been working hard to please the Union and satisfy their criteria on the different levels.

Long years of “distrust” were supposed to see the beginning of an end on the 18th of May with the first summit held in 15 years. However, the EU as always said that EU accession was not yet at hand. The region's six countries – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Kosovo, have been striving to please the EU and become part of the European bloc, however, the leaders of the six countries were frustrated to hear the expected message.

The six countries had been invited to the EU heads of state summit in Sofia, Bulgaria, as a gesture to reaffirm their path towards EU membership. Instead, the summit demonstrated divisions on whether or not the bloc could cope with further enlargement in the foreseeable future. The Sofia declaration was adopted, and all it offered was worries on the enlargement of Europe and nothing about accession.

The tense ambiance could be seen from the words of officials. Edi Rama, the Albanian prime minister, after emerging from a lunch with EU leaders which he described as “very argumentative” and “a fight” said “The elephant was in the room, so we had to talk about it.”

In the wake of the migration crisis and especially during the past year, it seems like the EU has realized other serious geostrategic players are in the game, with Russia, China, Persian Gulf countries or Turkey becoming more active in the Balkans. The EU does not look like it will give the “other” accession anytime soon. It rather looks like it is only stalling to gain more time and prevent any serious engagement of other players in the region.

“The EU is aware that it has strong competitors in the Balkans. There is no vacuum in international relations. If one pulls out or doesn’t want to act, somebody else will,” Srđan Darmanović, Montenegro’s foreign minister, said earlier this month.

Russia sees EU action in the region as provocative. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview with Bulgarian magazine “Foreign Affairs” in March that “NATO wishes to continue its expansion into the Balkan region and is “obsessed with the idea of acquiring” it.  

According to Lavrov, NATO urges the countries in the region to be “either with Moscow, or with Washington and Brussels” and undermine Russia’s historical ties there. However, NATO is incapable of countering “the main modern challenge” – terrorism – but still justifies its existence using Cold War logic aiming to deter Russia, according to Lavrov.

The summit is the first of its type since the EU vowed Western Balkans accession in Thessaloniki, Greece, 15 years ago. The European Commission had recently unveiled its new strategy for the region which aims to give membership to some states by 2025 -- the frontrunners to join are Montenegro and Serbia -- in return for reforms. However, a question remains on how realistic is 2025 for Western Balkans with such distrust and cynical attitude from the EU.

For long, the EU has been denying the Balkan countries accession under the pretexts of not fulfilling “democracy and the rule of law, especially the fight against corruption and organized crime, good governance, as well as respect for human rights and rights of persons belonging to minorities. However, this approach only provides another picture of otherness: a civilized and progressive Western Europe with an “other”, conceptualized in terms of deficiencies and backwardness.

Heba Morad

Heba is a freelance writer.