Amid Ukraine, Balkans losing hope of joining EU

STORY: Kosovo has been waiting for visa-free travel to the European Union for more than a decade.

So this restaurant owner put up a fake Eiffel Tower for his diners.

It's a sort of consolation prize for those who can't go to Paris, Blerim Bislimi says.

The joke reflects Balkan disillusionment about the prospect of ever joining the EU.

Which is such that two of the six states in the region - Albania and Serbia - nearly stayed away from Thursday's (June 23) Balkan-EU summit in Brussels, but changed their minds at the last minute.

All but Bosnia and Kosovo are already candidates, but there's been a lack of progress on milestones like visa-free travel.

Now Ukraine's fast-track candidacy - a gesture of solidarity after Russia's invasion - has increased the feeling the Balkans have been sidelined.

In Kosovo's capital, Pristina, Arton Demhasaj heads anti-corruption body Cohu, which means "wake up".

“The European Union has no clear enlargement policies towards the western Balkans and if countries who aspire to join EU face delays they will reorientate their policies and then we will have an increase of Russian and Chinese influence in the western Balkans and this will create problems within the EU itself. It will lead to a rise in nationalism that could result in armed conflicts. EU should take such developments into consideration.”

In Serbia, the largest Balkan country, enthusiasm for EU membership has plummeted, and only 35% are in favor, according to an Ipsos poll in April.

Talks have stalled over democratic reforms, corruption and disputes within the Balkans.

EU member Bulgaria has blocked the start of accession talks with North Macedonia over a dispute concerning history and language.

There's been no progress on overcoming that veto, or helping Serbia and Montenegro in their negotiations, which require politically unpopular reforms.

By contrast, the EU's earlier eastward enlargement transformed former communist countries such as Poland into thriving market democracies.

Now some EU governments, like France, the Netherlands and Denmark, fear migration from the Balkans will prompt a backlash and have placed the emphasis on their reform.

A draft of the summit statement showed EU leaders will restate their commitment to Balkan membership.

EU diplomats do not expect a breakthrough.

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