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EU's admission of Western Balkans 'a matter of time'

By Chen Yingqun | China Daily | Updated: 2020-02-12 09:05
A European flag is seen outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Nov 6, 2019. [Photo/Agencies]

European Union enlargement to take in the Western Balkans will happen sooner or later, despite the divided opinions among EU members and the announcement of a new methodology for accession, analysts said.

Feng Zhongping, vice-president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said that the countries in the Western Balkans are part of Europe, in terms of their culture and geography.

"The EU would still want to strengthen its influence in this region, so its enlargement to Western Balkans countries is just a matter of time," he said.

However, whether it be the EU taking in a new member or letting go of one, negotiations are required in order to gain approval from the members of the 27-country bloc. That means a long and arduous process, he said, citing the departure of the United Kingdom.

Oliver Varhelyi, the EU's commissioner for neighborhood and enlargement, said on Thursday, after meeting Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, that adding the Western Balkans into the EU has become a geopolitical priority.

Varhelyi said that during his mandate he aims to make at least one country in the Western Balkans ready to enter the EU. "I want to strengthen... our connections with countries in the Balkans, especially those already in the process of accession negotiations, because there is progress, and I want to accelerate it, working together with Serbia," he said.

Varhelyi had earlier said in Brussels that the EU aimed to add six Balkans countries as members: North Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia.

The new methodology for accession was unveiled last week, in a move forced upon the bloc by French President Emmanuel Macron. Macron had blocked the beginning of EU enlargement negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania in October, demanding changes in the bloc's process for admitting members.

Under the new methodology, the existing EU members would have more power to pause or reverse the enlargement process, or even force countries to restart entry talks in certain areas.

The European Commission hopes the changes will avoid further delays to the start of accession talks. North Macedonia and Albania were disappointed when the opening negotiations were called off in October.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday that the announcement of the new approach sent a "good message" and that "EU enlargement is a win-win situation". The EU will have a summit with the Western Balkans countries in May.

Feng said that EU members have differing views over how to proceed with the enlargement of the EU. Macron thinks the timing for further enlargement is not yet right.

"EU members have more divisions these years due to their different interests, so some leaders want to be more cautious and would think it is better to lift the entry threshold and take in new members at a slower pace, rather than admitting countries that they think are still unable to meet their requirements," he said.

Liu Zuokui, a senior researcher on Central and Eastern European studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that Germany is odds with France's view. Its leaders think that a start to the accession process would help the candidate countries to carry out reforms and meet the EU's requirements, Liu said.

But a key issue is that the Western Balkans countries face many difficulties in meeting the EU's requirements. Aside from their differing levels of economic development, there are issues involving matters such as religion and corruption in individual countries, he said.

"The EU has a fixed process and standards for enlargement, and it is unnecessary to take in new members just to showcase its solidarity," he said, adding that the admission of the Western Balkans countries has little to do with Brexit.

He added that the status of Western Balkans-an important gateway to Europe-will always be critical to the EU. But at the moment, it's still uncertain when will they able to meet EU requirements and when the bloc's members will be ready to accept them.

Agencies contributed to this story.

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