The spotlight has dimmed in Sofia, the venue of a summit between EU leaders and those of the Six Western Balkans Countries: Serbia, Albania, Macedonia (FYROM), Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, held May 16-17. But the path that could lead the region to become a member of the European common home, in due time, remains open. After all, Sofia in Greek means “wisdom”. And the summit took place in the city centre, a few meters away from the Catholic and Orthodox cathedrals, near the mosque and the synagogue. A crossroads of cultures and religions has been the backdrop of the works marking the return of the Balkans to the forefront of the European scene.
A top priority. The summit held in the Bulgarian capital reiterated the “European vocation” of Balkan States. In his closing remarks to heads of Government and State gathered in Sofia, European Council President Donald Tusk pointed out that, on several occasions, all participants declared:
“the Western Balkans is a top priority for the EU”, since the region is “a historical and cultural part of Europe.”
However, Tusk recognized that “it won’t be easy” for two sets of reasons. The first involves the many radical reforms demanded by the EU to candidate countries (also to prevent, he inferred, past mistakes, understood as a reference to 2004 and 2007 enlargements); the second reason is linked to the crisis afflicting the EU, coupled by “widespread Euroscepticism” –actually on the rise – “throughout EU Countries.” Moreover, the EU is unwilling to give the green light to new accessions.
“Unequivocal support.” The Sofia Declaration explicitly reaffirms “EU Countries’ unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans.” The EU, the document goes on, welcomes the shared commitment of the Western Balkans partners to “European values and principles.”
EU leaders remind their Balkan counterparts to step up their commitment especially to “the primacy of democracy and the rule of law, the fight against corruption and organised crime, good governance, as well as respect for human rights and rights of persons belonging to minorities.”
The document affirms that Balkan Countries are expected to find and implement “definitive, inclusive and binding solutions for their bilateral disputes rooted in the legacy of the past”
devoting additional efforts to reconciliation. In this respect, a great contribution can come from the many religious communities present. For the Summit leaders this can be done “also by strengthening good neighbourly relations, regional stability and mutual cooperation.”
Building bridges. For the signatories of the Sofia Declaration “constructing a dense web of connections and opportunities within the region and with the EU is vital for bringing our citizens and economies closer together”, enhancing “political stability, economic prosperity, cultural and social development.” Hence the declared intention is to “enhance connectivity”, the underlying theme of the summit,
“in all its dimensions: transport, energy, digital, economic and human.”
“Energy security” will be prioritized including through “better cross-border inter-connections, diversification of sources and routes, as well as a balanced energy mix better integrating renewable energy” to move faster towards “a digital economy and to sustainable and climate-friendly societies.” The document gives enhanced attention to the young, who will be recipients of “new opportunities”, also to prevent the flight of young generations to Western Europe.
Next meeting in Zagreb. The areas of common interest include the management of migratory flows, the fight against terrorism and extremism, resolute action against the smuggling of arms and drugs that follow the Balkans route. In the concluding remarks, the EU welcomes the intention of Croatia to host the next EU-Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb during its Presidency in 2020.
Concrete outcomes. The Declaration includes an “annexed” Sofia Priorities Agenda, listing the projects that will give concrete definition to the values and good intentions expressed so far. The approach is overarching, and this is probably the innovative aspect of the summit.
Clear lines of action bridge the current distances separating the EU and the Balkans,
which range from a rail strategy to energy, from measures to counter terrorism and extremism to freedom of the press, from the opportunities offered to youths in the area of education to lowering the cost of roaming.
Stumbling blocks overlooked? Sofia has many unsolved problems, notably the difficult relations with the Turkish giant, the Russian influence on the region along with the former’s economic and strategic interests, latent ethnic and nationalistic tensions. The fragile situation in Bosnia was not mentioned, the burden of nationalisms that weighs more heavily in the Balkans than in the EU, was overlooked. However, the summit marked by some steps forward: the Prime Ministers of Greece and Macedonia met to discuss the FYROM naming dispute, a major obstacle to accession talks; the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo came across each other under the aegis of the EU.
The Western Balkans are on the agenda of the European Council of June 28-29
to take stock of the progress in accession negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro and decide whether to start accession talks with Albania and Macedonia, which, however, will be finalised ve