Thursday, 23 June 2022

EU-Western Balkans Summit Ends Inconclusively

ZAGREB, 23 June  2022- An EU-Western Balkans summit, which lasted more than three hours, ended in Brussels on Thursday without a joint statement and without a press conference.

The European Council President Charles Michel's cabinet said that a scheduled press conference was postponed due to the lack of time as the meeting lasted longer than planned and a joint declaration had not been planned at all.

Despite the absence of any results, Michel's associates said the "meeting went well."

The leaders of the 27 member states will begin their regular summit later this afternoon and are expected to give the green light for candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova.

These two countries will overtake Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo on the road to the EU, the only two Western Balkan countries that do not have candidate status as yet.

The EU promised the Western Balkans a European perspective back in 2003 at the Thessaloniki Summit.

The French presidency of the EU has been trying to lift Bulgaria's blockade of North Macedonia's progress on its path towards EU integrations. Skopje and Albania are awaiting a green-light to open accession talks.

However, those hopes were dashed by Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, who said ahead of the Western Balkans summit that there was no prospect of unblocking and opening talks with North Macedonia at the summit, but hinted that a solution could be reached in the days to come.

Some proposals emerged saying that Bosnia and Herzegovina should be awarded candidate status, but there is no consensus on that.

The draft conclusions to be adopted by EU leaders during the summit reiterate "full and unambiguous commitment" to the perspective of the Western Balkans and call for accelerating the accession process.

At the insistence of Croatia, the draft conclusions call on BiH leaders to urgently deliver on their promise to complete constitutional and electoral reforms.

The draft conclusions welcome an agreement reached by BiH parliamentary party leaders at a meeting with European Council President Charles Michel on 12 June, in which they pledged, among other things, to implement limited constitutional and electoral reforms.

The European Council calls on Bosnia and Herzegovina's political leaders to immediately deliver on the promises made in the agreement and complete constitutional and electoral reforms, which will enable the country to make decisive progress on its European path, in line with the Commission's priorities, so that it can be awarded candidate status.

For more, check out our politics section.

Thursday, 23 June 2022

Germany Wants Western Balkans To Be Given Realistic Opportunity For EU Membership

ZAGREB, 23 June 2022- Germany wants the Western Balkan countries to be given a realistic opportunity to join the European Union, Chancellor Olaf Scholz told the press in Brussels on Thursday ahead of a meeting of EU and Western Balkan leaders. 

"The citizens in the Western Balkans have been waiting for almost 20 years for the opportunity to become members of the European Union. It is of utmost importance that this becomes a credible promise because the many efforts that these countries have undertaken must in the end actually lead to their admission," Scholz said.

The EU leaders are meeting their Western Balkan counterparts before their regular summit, which is expected to adopt a historic decision to grant membership candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova.

The EU leaders are expected to again express their full and unequivocal commitment to membership prospects for the  Western Balkan countries and call on them to speed up the accession process. 

Three EU member states have asked that Bosnia and Herzegovina also be granted candidate status, but there is no consensus on the matter, according to a high-level EU official knowledgeable about the preparation of the summit.

Croatia supports membership candidate status for Bosnia and Herzegovina and demands that the country's electoral law be amended to ensure equality for the Croats as the least numerous of the three constituent peoples.

One of the toughest issues facing the summit is efforts to remove Bulgaria's blockade of the opening of accession talks with North Macedonia. The Bulgarian government received a vote of no confidence on Wednesday, and there are indications that Sofia is willing to remove the blockade based on a French proposal. However, the question is whether North Macedonia will agree to it.

The French EU presidency has proposed a negotiating framework for North Macedonia that includes some of the Bulgarian demands.

Bulgaria has set as a condition for the removal of the blockade that the negotiating framework include issues relating to the common history, language and national identity of Bulgaria and North Macedonia.

Edi Rama, the Prime Minister of Albania, which is included in the same package as North Macedonia, said that it was a shame that NATO member Bulgaria should block two other NATO members, Albania and North Macedonia, in the middle of "a hot war in Europe's backyard" as 26 other EU member states displayed "frightening impotence".

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić commented on Croatia's remarks that Serbia could no longer sit in two chairs at the same time.

"Serbia is sitting in its own chair, and it is not the Croatian prime minister and president who will lead Serbian politics, but the citizens of Serbia through their leadership," Vučić said.

For more, check out our politics section.

Wednesday, 25 May 2022

West Balkans Wants to Join EU Quickly, but Brussels not Willing

ZAGREB, 25 May 2022 - Due to the war in Ukraine, Western Balkan countries seek accelerated EU accession, but Brussels officials say there is no political will among the 27 member states for their accession and that their entering too quickly makes no sense.

At an Adriatic-Ionian region forum held in Tirana last week, ten countries signed a declaration calling on the EU to step up the journey of the Western Balkan countries as their accession would be an investment in a stable, strong and united Europe.

EU enlargement is a policy which has always exported peace and stability to all countries where it happened, Bosnian Deputy Foreign Minister Josip Brkić said, adding that the Russian aggression on Ukraine will show how important it is for the enlargement to include Southeast Europe.

Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for membership more than six years ago and hopes to get candidate status by 30 June. Brkić said candidate status was a political decision.

North Macedonia and Albania, which are candidates, hoped accession negotiations would be opened in March 2020, but Bulgaria blocked them due to a historical and language dispute with North Macedonia.

The EU grouped the two countries together in their membership applications, so now Albania cannot proceed either. Its Deputy Prime Minister Arben Amedaj said at the forum that such obstacles made no sense.

Montenegro has opened all negotiation chapters. Its Foreign Minister Jovana Marović said those relating to the environment and the rule of law were the most challenging.

Serbia has not imposed sanctions on Russia but did adopt the joint declaration in Tirana, although its first article says that the invasion of Ukraine is an illegal and unjustified aggression.

In order to equate its stands with those of the member states and accession candidates, Serbia stated its commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

According to speculation on the fringes of the forum, Western Balkan countries and Ukraine might join the EU together in 2027, but a Commission official working with the candidate states dismissed this option.

Entering too soon makes no sense. The countries would not be prepared to draw money from the funds as they first have to set up the necessary structure, he said on the condition of anonymity.

But the problem is first and foremost political. The fundamental EU treaties would have to be changed for this many countries to enter at once, and some member states are opposed to that, he added.

Last week in Sarajevo, European Council President Charles Michel mentioned the idea of a European geopolitical community. Non-member states would be gradually included in certain sectors together with the member states after meeting the criteria, without waiting for full membership.

The idea of a European political community was mentioned earlier by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Bosnian Deputy Foreign Minister Brkić said that for all Southeast European countries, the only guarantee of stability and political and economic prosperity was full membership, "as pledged 19 years ago in Thessaloniki."

Western Balkan countries cooperate with EU member states in the EU Strategy for the Adriatic and Ionian Region and the Strategy for the Danube Region, which includes Ukraine and Moldova.

Croatian Foreign Ministry state secretary Andreja Metelko-Zgombić said it was important to make progress when the criteria had been met. "We believe that Albania and North Macedonia deserve to open the negotiations as soon as possible."

For more, check out our politics section.

Thursday, 21 April 2022

Serious potential for instability in W. Balkans, Croatia FM says

ZAGREB, 21 April 2022 - There is "serious potential to create instability" in the Western Balkans because it is "a testing ground for geostrategic rivalries," Croatian Foreign Minister Gordan Grlić Radman said on Thursday.

Speaking to the press after talks with his Bulgarian counterpart Teodora Genchovska, he said they agreed that it was necessary to do everything so that the repercussions of the Russian aggression on Ukraine "don't spill over to the Western Balkans and Southeast Europe."

"There is still, unfortunately, in a certain sense, serious potential to create instability given that the Western Balkans is, in a certain sense, a testing ground for various geo-strategic rivalries," said Grlić Radman.

Genchovska said the Bulgarian-Croatian cooperation within NATO was very good and that a more secure European southeast was conditioned by the cooperation between NATO member states.

The Three Seas Initiative is also important to Bulgaria due to energy autonomy, she said, adding that this initiative has become a lot more significant due to the war in Ukraine.

The two ministers said Bulgarian-Croatian relations were friendly, without outstanding issues, and that the two countries supported each other for Schengen and OECD membership.

Grlić Radman said it was important to Croatia that Bosnia and Herzegovina's election law be changed because it "favours electoral engineering" and allowed Bosniaks to outvote Croats.

Genchovska said Bulgaria fully supported Croatia's aspirations for the BiH crisis to be solved.

As for the North Macedonia-Bulgaria dispute over history and identity, Grlić Radman said he hoped the two countries "will find a mutually acceptable solution which will allow North Macedonia to continue its European journey."

For more, check out our politics section.

Thursday, 7 April 2022

Croatian President Says Western Sanctions Will Not Stop War In Ukraine

ZAGREB, 7 April 2022 - Sanctions imposed by Western countries on Russia will not stop the war in Ukraine, Croatian President Zoran Milanović said during a visit to Switzerland, adding that the war could be stopped only with the help of diplomacy.

"These sanctions will not be enough to stop the war," Milanović said at a news conference after meeting his Swiss counterpart Ignazio Cassis.

The Croatian president said that having followed "the stock exchange in Moscow and the ruble that has returned to the level of a month ago in relation to the dollar", he had to conclude that "as in every such case, it unfortunately only encourages thugs."

"I would be happiest if Russia withdrew in an hour, if it simply left, but that won't happen," Milanović said, adding that the only way to stop the war is diplomacy, with mediation by the countries "that enjoy a certain level of trust."

There are just a few such countries in the world, he said at the end of the news conference, without specifying them.

"Croatia cannot do much in Ukraine," but it can do much in the Western Balkans, he said, adding that he and his Swiss counterpart discussed the topic at Cassis's suggestion.

"That concerns us directly and we have good intentions," Milanović added.

The Western Balkans is very important for Europe's stability and its security architecture, the Swiss president, a liberal and physician by profession, said.

Cassis said he was particularly moved to talk about that with the Croatian president and that it took him back to the time when he worked as a physician in Switzerland, working also with completely traumatised victims of war from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

After their meeting, the two presidents participated in a panel on security challenges in Europe and Switzerland's neutrality, after which they were expected to visit CERN, the European organisation for nuclear research.

For more, check out our politics section.

Monday, 4 April 2022

Ukraine Crisis Won't Spill Over to Western Balkans, Biden's Envoy Says

4 April 2022 - The war in Ukraine cannot spill over to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia is an example of a smart energy policy, the United States administration's special envoy for the Western Balkans, Gabriel Escobar, said on Monday.

Speaking at the US-Croatia Forum in Zagreb, he said he did not think the Ukraine crisis could spill over to Croatia's neighbourhood because it had returned Europe's focus to dealing with crises around it.

The war in Ukraine has also led to EU membership candidates pro-actively showing solidarity with Western values, Escobar said, adding that Serbia condemned the Russian invasion at the UN General Assembly early in March, calling this a seismic change.

Nonetheless, he said, Serbia is not the toughest topic he discusses with other countries in the neighbourhood, but BiH.

US-Serbia relations go back 140 years and all this time Belgrade has been a close partner to Washington, for example in the two world wars, he added.

The question today is how to draw Serbia to Western democracies, where it has always been and where it belongs, Escobar said, adding that the integration process slowed down during the Slobodan Milošević regime which, he said, was marked by bad governance.

Escobar is confident that the next generation of Serbs will lean more towards Europe, saying they prove this by emigrating to Europe and the US, not to China and Russia.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

As for BiH, which, he has reiterated, does not have an ethnic but a corruption problem, he said it was the biggest challenge in the Western Balkans and that it was a country where the West's promises had been fulfilled the least.

Escobar said he hoped that BiH would hold general elections this year.

According to him, it is key to establish functional authorities that will fight against corruption, attract investment and create conditions for young people. However, he said, BiH is a sovereign state and the political will must come from within.

We must encourage them, but it is their responsibility to find solutions, he said about BiH political leaders.

Croatia as a good ally

Escobar went on to say that Croatia is always present in the relations with the US, whether in terms of energy diversification or helping Ukrainian refugees, which, he added, he could not say about all US allies.

Croatia is an outstanding example of a smart energy policy and other countries should follow it, he said, referring to the LNG terminal which Croatia built before the current energy supply crisis.

Thursday, 20 January 2022

Western Balkans Important to Macron in Security Context

ZAGREB, 20 Jan 2022 - French President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday the EU should give a clear European perspective to the Western Balkans although he is not an advocate of enlargement without reforming the EU, while several Croatian MEPs feel that part of Europe is important to him for security reasons.

We must not distance ourselves from the Western Balkans anymore. They should get from us a clear perspective of EU accession within a reasonable time, Macron said at a plenary in Strasbourg, but added that enlargement is not possible without reforming the EU.

Croatian MEP Tonino Picula (S&D/SDP) told Hina "Macron is looking for his place in that security architecture of the world, notably Europe. Macron is interested in all that is in some way dubious from the aspect of Europe's security."

Macron is "aware that if Europe doesn't fill some gaps, someone else will," the president of the EP Working Group on the Western Balkans added.

Croatian MEP Željana Zovko (EPP/HDZ) told Hina the issue of enlargement to the Western Balkans "is first and foremost a security challenge if that region is left to third countries looking for their own strategic position and interest."

Enlargement "won't happen at any cost" and without all the requirements being met, the co-rapporteur on the pre-accession assistance to Southeast Europe instrument added.

Zovko said Macron's statement should be viewed in the context of the French presidential election due in April given that a majority of the French are not in favor of enlargement occurring soon. "The fact that he underlined that Europe needs to reform for enlargement to continue (indicates that) that process won't take place any time soon."

Picula, too, said Macron's address "was first and foremost a pre-election address because he was speaking in Strasbourg and to French citizens."

Croatian MEP Tomislav Sokol (HDZ/EPP) told Hina "pro-European groups should be given an incentive to continue to fight for the European path so that those countries reach the European standards of human rights protection, rule of law." He added, however, that some Western Balkan countries are still far from that.

"There is practically no opposition in Serbia, where all media or all-important media are controlled by the authorities. The story about a Serbian world, which is an attempt to spread Serb influence in neighboring states... Montenegro's ruling coalition consists of political groups that range from pro-European to fiercely anti-European. In Bosnia and Herzegovina we have one people looking to the West, instead of Turkey and Russia, without a hidden agenda, the Croats," he said.

Last November, Macron supported Croatia's accession to Schengen, and reforming the area is one of the priorities of the current French Council of the EU presidency. Croatian MEPs don't believe that will change if France gets a new president.

Sokol said he was confident that if Valerie Pecresse, the center-right presidential candidate, won the election, the support to Croatia's Schengen entry would be even stronger.

During the plenary debate, independent Croatian MEP Mislav Kolakušić told Macron, "Given the rescinding of numerous rights and freedoms in France during the pandemic, I ask you just one thing, while you preside over the Union, do the exact opposite of what you did in France."

"On the other hand, today you said you were proud that there is no death penalty in Europe. Tens of thousands of citizens have died as a consequence of vaccination. Mandatory vaccination represents the death penalty," he said, adding that vaccination against COVID "must remain" a personal choice.

For more, check out our dedicated politics section.

Thursday, 16 December 2021

MEPs Call for Reforms, Opening Archives in Fight With Organized Crime in W. Balkans

ZAGREB, 16 Dec 2021 - Organised crime is a structural problem in Western Balkan countries but it also affects EU countries, which is why members of the European Parliament are agreed that it is necessary to encourage reforms and open former Yugoslav archives.

Michael Gahler, deputy rapporteur of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, said in a debate on a committee report on Tuesday that the document calls on Western Balkan governments to step up efforts to implement the necessary reforms, noting that ties between organized crime, politics, and business had existed before the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and continue to exist.

Therefore in the report, we call for opening former Yugoslav archives, notably, those of the former Yugoslav secret service (UDBA) and the military intelligence agency (KOS), said Gahler.

Croatian MEP Željana Zovko (EPP/HDZ) agreed with Gahler's request, noting that "this could help shed light on many deep-rooted criminal organizations that have been operating under the radar for decades."

Andreas Schieder (S&D) stressed that crime was a result of social conditions, poor state, and bad structures. The EU can have an influence on reducing organized crime in the Western Balkans through the process of integration, he said.

The accession process itself is the necessary support for reforms required to fight organized crime in the Balkans. There is no excuse for delaying the accession of North Macedonia and Montenegro which have been in the EU's waiting room for decades even though they courageously implement reforms, he said.

Nicolae Ştefănuță (Renew Europe) underlined the geopolitical importance of the Balkans, noting that it was necessary to fight organized crime there and unblock the process of Western Balkan countries' integration in order to prevent influence from third countries.

Viola Von Cramon-Taubadel (The Greens/European Free Alliance) underlined the importance of supporting independent organizations and reporters in W. Balkan countries.

Croatian MEP Tonino Picula (S&D) stressed the importance of the European Parliament sending "strong messages of support to civil society organizations, investigative reporters and all hard-working and brave people who take risks to make their countries better."

MEP Sunčana Glavak (EPP/HDZ) said organized crime was also a matter of security.

"Organised crime is dangerous for the democratic progress of Western Balkan countries and it is a first-class security issue," she warned, noting that the EU estimates that revenue from criminal activities in the main markets in 2019 accounted for 1% of the EU's GDP or €139 billion.

Croatian MEP Karlo Ressler (EPP/HDZ) called for better security and intelligence cooperation and for "taking more account of the countries' results in that regard in the context of enlargement policy priorities."

French MEP Thierry Mariani (Identity and Democracy) said he disagreed with the report. "The report is not about the fight against corruption but about the promotion of an ideological agenda," he said, noting that the report failed to mention the Balkan migration route.

Croatian MEP Ladislav Ilčić (Conservatives/Reformists), too, said illegal migrations "are fuel for organized crime", adding that uncontrolled migration was largely "due to irresponsible statements by European politicians welcoming illegal migrants."

Croatian MEP Mislav Kolakušić, too, criticized European leaders for welcoming refugees, adding that that had helped create migration routes that were still active, affecting primarily Western Balkan citizens as well as all EU citizens who do not want illegal migrations.

The report was supported with 531 votes for, 48 against, and 117 abstentions.

For more, check out our dedicated politics section.

Monday, 17 May 2021

Brdo-Brijuni Summit on Western Balkans starts

May 17, 2021 -  An initiative of the heads of state of Western Balkan countries as part of the Brdo-Brijuni summit started in Brdo Pri Kranju, Slovenia, on Monday morning intending to bring countries in Southeast Europe closer to their integration into the European Union.

In addition to the presidents of Croatia and Slovenia, Zoran Milanović and Borut Pahor respectively, Albanian President Ilir Meta, Montenegro's Milo Đukanović, North Macedonia's Stevo Pendarovski, Serbia's President Aleksandar Vučić, Kosovo's Vjosa Osmani, and the three members of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Presidency - Milorad Dodik, Šefik Džaferović, and Željko Komšić - are attending the meeting.

The Brdo-Brijuni initiative was launched in 2010 by Slovenia and Croatia to strengthen regional trust and cooperation and encourage the EU membership aspirants to continue the necessary reforms to join the European Union.

Ahead of the plenary session, President Zoran Milanović met for bilateral talks with Kosovo President Osmani and North Macedonia's President Pendarovski.

Milanović and Pahor met on Sunday, saying that they expected today's summit to make a big step toward bringing the region closer to the EU.

Slovenia will chair the Council of the EU in the second half of this year when it intends to boost the region's faster integration as one of its presidency priorities, with Pahor saying that this was just as important for the EU as a whole for geopolitical reasons.

Slovenia is advocating a faster EU accession of Western Balkan countries "in a package," despite them being in different positions regarding the phase of their accession process.

One of the important achievements of the Brdo-Brijuni initiative so far is communication between leaders, considering that ten years ago, it had not existed.

"We are here to help our neighbors in the Western Balkans join the EU as soon and as simply as possible," Milanović said on Sunday after meeting with Pahor.

In addition to the plenary session, the presidents are expected to conduct bilateral meetings and issue a joint statement expressing their strong commitment to the EU enlargement process towards the southeast neighbors.

For more on travel in Croatia, follow TCN's dedicated page.

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Grlić Radman, Čović Say Western Balkans Declaration Historically Important

ZAGREB, May 9, 2020 - Croatian Foreign Minister Gordan Grlić Radman and the president of the House of Peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina's Parliamentary Assembly, Dragan Čović, said at a video conference on Friday that the declaration adopted at an EU-Western Balkans summit was of historic importance.

At the summit, which was held as a video conference on Wednesday, the EU sent a strong message about unquestionable EU membership prospects of Western Balkan countries.

European Commission President Usrula von der Leyen said at the event that the Western Balkans was an absolute priority for the EU.

Grlić Radman also commented on a video conference of the United Nations held earlier this week and focusing on the 57th report of the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina on the implementation of the peace agreement for the country, at which Croatia called for amendment of the country's election law, stressed its support for Bosnia and Herzegovina's EU journey and underlined the importance of the legitimate representation of local Croats in the country's institutions.

Grlić Radman and Čović also discussed measures and activities undertaken to fight the coronavirus pandemic, with emphasis on aid Croatia sent for Bosnia and Herzegovina last week, the ministry said.

More news about relations between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina can be found in the Politics section.

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