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EU keen on Balkans reform, cool on accession

May 17, 2018

The first meeting of European Union and Western Balkans leaders in 15 years will not directly address EU membership. The "Sofia Declaration" no longer mentions accession and instead focuses on a "European perspective."

Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk
Image: Getty Images/AFP/D. Dilkoff

European Union leaders and their counterparts from the six Western Balkans countries commenced talks in Sofia, Bulgaria on Thursday to discuss how to strengthen ties between the region and the bloc.

In the "Sofia Declaration," which has been viewed by DW, the EU will once again commit itself to bringing the Balkans closer together, but there is no talk of membership — only of a "European perspective."

Read more: Opinion: Western Balkans have a place in the European Union

The summit seeks to

  • Reaffirm the EU's commitment to its Western Balkans partners and reiterate the region's "belonging to the European family"
  • Strengthen links between the EU and the Western Balkans in infrastructure, digital and human connectivity
  • Encourage working closely together to tackle common challenges, such as "security, migration, geopolitical developments and good neighborly relations"

Juncker tours Western Balkans

'You can count on us'

In his comments ahead of the meeting, European Council President Donald Tusk said, "It will be an opportunity for both sides to reaffirm that the European perspective remains the Western Balkans' geostrategic choice."

Read more: '2025 is ambitious for Western Balkans to join EU'

"After my recent trip to the region, I am convinced that the EU is the only partner that cares genuinely about the stability of the entire region and a prosperous future for its peoples – as opposed to treating it as a geopolitical game of chess, in which the people are pawns," he continued.

"In a visit [in April] I have been travelling through the entire region," EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said. "I came to the Western Balkans with a clear message from the leaders of all European Union Member States: we remain steadfast in our offer of a European perspective to the region. You can count on us."

Western Balkans and EU map

Which Balkans countries are in the EU already? Croatia has been a member since 2013. Serbia has been a candidate country since 2012 and Montonegro since 2010. Both candidate countries are in membership talks. 

Who else wants to join? The European Commission has proposed that EU leaders decide in June to open formal membership negotiations with Albania and Macedonia, which are both candidate countries. During his trip through the Balkans in April, Juncker mentioned the year 2025 for the accession of Serbia and Montenegro, but this is no longer mentioned in the Sofia Declaration.

Why Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is not attending: Documents seen by DW reveal that records of discussions between EU ambassadors before the Sofia Summit show Spain in particular is applying the brakes to EU membership. Rajoy is the only EU leader not attending the summit due to his country's opposition to Kosovo's independence. The country, which was split off from Serbia after the civil war, is not recognized by Spain and four other EU states (Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia).

Why the Sofia Declaration no longer mentions EU membership: "We do not want to raise false expectations in the candidate countries,” an EU diplomat explained as the reason for the careful wording.

law/rt (dpa, Reuters)

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