EU Ambitions Are ‘Glue’ Holding Balkans Together, North Macedonia Says

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Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani issues plea for some movement as countries’ membership bids stall.

North Macedonia’s Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani called on the EU to move faster on integrating the six Western Balkans countries — or risk a return of ethnic conflicts to the region.

“North Macedonia is multi-ethnic, multicultural … The only narrative that has subordinated these conflicting narratives and has become a glue for all these narratives is the European Union,” Osmani told POLITICO during a visit to Brussels.

“So you have all groups, social, cultural, religious, ethnic, all share the same ideal: the EU,” the foreign minister added.

All six countries from the region — North Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo — have applied for EU membership, with varying degrees of progress.

All countries but Kosovo have been granted candidate status but, in most cases, negotiations to join have been stalled for years.

Brussels opened accession negotiations with North Macedonia in July 2022, and the country is currently going through the EU’s screening process, on which meetings will be held until the end of the year.

The European Commission said in November that the screening process was going “smoothly,” but that Skopje still had room for improvement in rooting out corruption and organized crime, and reforming its public administration.

Osmani — himself a Macedonian belonging to the Albanian ethnic group — warned about potentially devastating consequences if the push for EU enlargement failed.

In North Macedonia, the 2001 armed conflict between ethnic Albanians and the Macedonian government ended with a peace deal that enshrined greater minority political rights and government devolution — which Osmani described as a positive and “functioning” counter-example to the Dayton Accords in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

But the risk of ethnic conflicts is always present.

“There has been this debate whether in the Balkans multi-ethnic democracies can work,” the foreign minister said.

“If we fail, because of [the] EU not being assertive enough, I think it will be the beginning of a domino effect throughout the region,” he added. “And the message [will be] that in the Balkans, multi-ethnic democracies cannot work.”

Yet, the region’s EU prospects are facing strong political headwinds. After the victory of far-right Euroskeptic leader Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and threats from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to block accession talks with Ukraine, there’s a risk that the momentum in favor of EU enlargement could stall again.

To circumvent those obstacles, Osmani has a pragmatic solution: a three-step process for gradual integration.

Candidate countries would first be granted an “observer” status at the EU table during Council meetings, then given access to the internal market, and eventually become eligible to receive EU money from structural and cohesion funds — without becoming full-fledged member countries.

Currently, “the approach is all in or nothing,” Osmani said, adding, “why don’t we just … start integrating into the EU before full membership?”

Source : Politico