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EU revitalizes Balkan enlargement ahead of debate on Ukraine’s candidacy

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The Russian invasion of Ukraine has turned Europe into a very complex chessboard, where every move has the potential to determine the fate of the continent. The game is currently being played in the east: at the gates of the 27th summit, which will take place this Thursday and Friday in Brussels, where the capitals plan to give Ukraine candidate status – barring a big surprise. The EU also wanted a tentative one Hold meetings with Western Balkan countries. “It’s a geopolitical peak,” says a senior community source.

On the one hand, the meeting with the Balkan countries aims to revive the sluggish accession process of several countries already aspiring to join (Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia). These countries, which have been stagnant for years, may feel hit by the arrival of Ukraine and Moldova at their club in the fast lane. On the other hand, the summit aims to define where the rift runs against Russia, which seems poised to exploit any gap or rift, particularly in Belgrade. Serbia, a country with which Moscow has good historical ties, is where the shadow of the Kremlin is most strongly projected.

Most of the 27 want to make it clear to the Serbian head of state Aleksandar Vucic that there are currently no shades of gray. Wartime requires taking sides. “Before we grant future benefits to Serbia, we must be clear that it is committed to aligning itself with European values,” says a senior diplomatic source. “This is the moment of definition. And actions are what define you. We expect a lot more from Serbia,” he emphasizes. “We will be frank with them,” added another senior diplomat. “We will clearly demand alignment with EU sanctions against Russia.” The same requirement also appears urgently as a warning to all candidates in the draft conclusions of the summit to which EL PAÍS had access. But the announcement is veiled aimed at Serbia.

The war has prompted the EU to once again step on the accession accelerator. “Ukraine has served as an icebreaker,” adds one of the sources cited; The military invasion ordered by Vladimir Putin and Kiev’s rapprochement with Brussels could be like an astral conjunction, the spark reviving a stagnant enlargement. “The European Union expresses its full and unequivocal commitment to the prospect of EU membership for the Western Balkans and calls for an acceleration of the accession process,” says the draft European Council conclusions.

The candidatures of North Macedonia and Albania

Countries stuck in this long process include North Macedonia and Albania, candidate countries since 2005 and 2014 respectively. But the conflict between Bulgaria and North Macedonia still weighs on both of them – and is preventing them from progressing for the time being. Sofia is maintaining her veto over Skopje due to a historical and linguistic conflict, and the decision is directly related to the political turmoil Bulgaria is currently experiencing, where a motion of no confidence was tabled this Wednesday in the current coalition government led by Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov .

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The 27 are even considering whether it would be expedient to separate the two candidatures and only go ahead with Albania. The decision is delicate: it could desert a North Macedonia that has made enormous political sacrifices to resolve its conflict with Greece. “North Macedonia has changed its name to become a member of the European Union,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz recalled before entering the Council building. “This is just one example of many efforts.”

Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama has shown his anger outside the council gates: “It’s a shame that a NATO country, Bulgaria, other NATO members, Albania and North Macedonia, are kidnapping in the middle of a hot war in the backyard of Europe, with 26 others.” countries sitting in a spectacle of fear and helplessness,” he condemned. “We must continue to build Europe,” he added, calling for the Balkans to be “open to the whole world.”

Serb Vucic drew everyone’s attention at his entrance to the Council building in Brussels. For a few days he even asked if he would come to the appointment. “But we are here to discuss our European future,” he replied during an appearance. Vucic has expressed his hope that the Council will draw some “good conclusions” for the Western Balkans, albeit without too much enthusiasm: “If it happens, it’s fine; if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t matter. Regardless, we are deeply grateful to the EU for investing in our countries by donating huge amounts of money.”

Among the 27, many partners see Serbia as a Trojan horse for Russia. Belgrade has condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine in the United Nations General Assembly, but Vucic has refused to join the wave of EU sanctions against Moscow. Until Putin launched the all-out war against Ukraine, Serbia had played the card of being a buffer country between the EU and Russia. Now many in Brussels are urging Belgrade to choose sides. “There will come a time when you will have to define your position,” said a senior leader of one of Europe’s major political parties.

For the time being, however, the Balkan country seems unwilling to give up flattery to Vladimir Putin, which has guaranteed him what Vucic calls “the cheapest gas price in Europe” with a recently renewed contract for around 400 euros per 1,000 cubic meters, an amount which is higher than the previous contract, which was about to expire (about 238 euros), but still lower than the market price, which is between 700 and 800 euros. The new agreement is valid until 2025.

Belgrade is trying to gain advantages from both sides, but a public departure from Moscow’s positions on the invasion of Ukraine would also put Vucic in a confrontation with a good percentage of Serbian citizens who blame NATO and Ukraine directly for the war. According to an April poll by the polling institute Valicon, only 26 percent of Serbs blame Moscow for the invasion.

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Source elpais.com

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