Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković said he wishes a virtual EU-Western Balkans summit could send a stronger signal of support to the region but the meeting itself conveys a powerful message.
Wednesday’s gathering was originally due to take place in Zagreb as the highlight of Croatia’s presidency of the Council of the EU. But restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus crisis mean the meeting of EU leaders and their counterparts from six Western Balkan states will now take place by videoconference.
Officials had also planned to put a big economic package for the Western Balkans, one of the poorest parts of Europe, at the heart of the summit. But instead aid worth €3.3 billion to help the region tackle the consequences of COVID-19 will be at the core of the meeting. The broader economic package will come later, according a draft of the summit’s final statement, seen by POLITICO.
Some Western Balkan commentators have also expressed disappointment that the statement — still called the Zagreb Declaration — does not mention EU enlargement, as they had hoped for a clear message that the bloc wants to accept all the countries of the region as members one day.
“From a personal point of view, I would have been happier if we had been more robust and clear, all of us, in the statement,” Plenković told POLITICO in a telephone interview.
Plenković said that the enlargement decision “will be the political legacy of Croatian presidency to our neighbors.”
“But I’m realistic, we made a very solid document given the circumstances. The fact that the meeting is happening is already a strong political signal,” he added.
EU officials insist that enlargement is not off the table and point to the fact that the bloc in March gave North Macedonia and Albania the green light to begin membership talks.
Plenković said that decision “will be the political legacy of Croatian presidency to our neighbors.”
Two other countries taking part in the conference, Serbia and Montenegro, have been in EU membership talks for years but are not yet close to joining. The final two participants in the meeting, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, are widely considered to be far from even being invited to start membership negotiations.
The slow pace of progress toward membership for the Western Balkan six has prompted some in the region to conclude that many EU countries do not want further enlargement, even if they don’t say so openly.
The summit draft text says that the EU “reaffirms its unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans” without explicitly mentioning membership of the bloc. But Plenković insisted “enlargement is back in town.”
He said a summit in Zagreb this year would have provided a neat symmetry — as EU and Balkan leaders gathered there 20 years ago to herald a new era of closer cooperation after the curtain came down on a decade of war and upheaval in the region.
Plenković noted he had taken part in the summit in 2000 as a diplomat and had hoped back then to have a “roadmap from Zagreb to Zagreb.” Although the leaders are not gathering in Zagreb this time, Plenković said Croatia’s presidency had put the region back on the agenda — an assertion that may be disputed by Bulgaria, which hosted its own EU-Western Balkans summit in May 2018.
“If we can maintain the focus with this high level political dialogue every two years, we as the presidency can safely say hat we have achieved our objectives. This is key,” Plenković said.