EU’s Failure to Fold in Balkans Sours Mood in Volatile Region

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Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

The party mood in North Macedonia is fading as the European Union drags its feet over an expected promise of membership. The bloc’s stalling risks dire consequences across the volatile western Balkans.

Countries in the region, engulfed by bloody wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia, are desperate to join the EU. Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo and Serbia are also waiting in the wings.

But with officials in Brussels consumed by power struggles over the bloc’s top posts, most member-states are reluctant to take in newcomers. Balkan politicians are struggling to explain the letdown to their 18 million citizens, who yearn for higher wages and corruption-free lives. Many are
looking to emigrate

“If we don’t start accession talks this year, this means for me that there’s no European perspective,” Nikola Dimitrov, North Macedonia’s foreign minister, said after the EU
a decision on starting negotiations. If the start date for talks is pushed back again, “I can’t talk to my people, to the citizens, with a straight, serious face” about a future in the bloc.

North Macedonia has done more than most to facilitate membership. It this year ended a long-running
naming dispute with Greece
and has locked itself on a course to join NATO.

“If North Macedonia isn’t adequately rewarded for the progress achieved,” the “message to other countries in the region will be clear — you have nothing to hope for,” said Marko Kmezic, a senior researcher at the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, Austria.

With the EU entry process in flux, tensions are bubbling over
Balkan countries and
among them

Anti-government protests have taken place in Serbia, Albania, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina, which still lacks a government eight months after
. Relations between Serbia and Montenegro are at the lowest ebb since their peaceful split in 2006 amid a row over the church. Serbia-Kosovo ties remain fraught.

Brussels-mediated negotiations to end that conflict
last year. Plans
fell through
for a July meeting with Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, to help jump start talks for a lasting peace. No new date has been set.

Some countries have signaled that they understand the holdups from the EU. The bloc has “personnel problems that need to be solved first,” Ivica Dacic, Serbia’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, told reporters Monday. “It could take months to see which direction the EU wants to go.”

But without a firm commitment and oversight of the war-scarred region, analysts predict a fragile atmosphere in the western Balkans. That risks deepening the tug-of-war for power in the region between the West, Russia, China and the Middle East.

“Regional politics is in turmoil,” said Timothy Less, a project leader at the Forum on Geopolitics Darwin College, University of Cambridge. “I see more political unrest over the next few years and a descent into authoritarianism as nervous peoples — especially the rural and working classes — call on their leaders to maintain order and security.”

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