BRUSSELS — The EU waited too long to bring countries from the Western Balkans into its orbit, according to Serbia’s Europe minister.
Belgrade’s point person on EU integration, Tanja Miščević, said Monday that although the bloc reacted quickly on Ukraine’s prospective membership, the EU’s “lack of momentum” on the Western Balkans tarnished the bloc’s reputation in the region.
“The EU did not react as fast as it reacted with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia two years ago, or now. They missed the same type of reaction at the beginning of this century when it comes to the Western Balkans,” Miščević told POLITICO in Brussels, where she attended a meeting of EU foreign ministers and their Balkan counterparts.
Miščević added that after the end of the Yugoslav Wars, the EU’s appetite for enlargement “was not as enthusiastic as it is now, there was no momentum … as … now created because of Ukraine primarily.”
So-called enlargement fatigue triggered a drop in pro-EU sentiment across the Western Balkans, the minister added. Popular support for Serbia’s EU accession now stands at 33 percent, a much lower figure than most other countries in the region, according to a Demostat survey.
New enlargement momentum
Russia’s war against Ukraine gave new momentum to EU expansion and revived the membership bids of most Western Balkan countries, which have been stuck in the waiting room for almost a decade.
In last week’s enlargement report setting out the state of play of prospective EU members, the European Commission backed the start of accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova, and awarded candidate status to Georgia.
But the EU executive reprimanded Belgrade over its failure to sanction Russia and the lack of progress in efforts to defuse tensions with Kosovo — two issues that are blocking Serbia’s path toward EU membership.
There is little hope that EU leaders will agree to push forward talks with Serbia in a crunch meeting slated for December 14 and 15.
Serbia has much to lose from sanctioning Russia, as it relies on Moscow for almost 90 percent of its gas supplies. But the country is trying to wean itself off Russian oil and gas by striking deals with Azerbaijan and increasing energy flows with its regional partners, Miščević explained.
She argued that Serbia’s stance on Russia is “not ideological. It’s purely out of our economic interests,” while conceding that Western sanctions against Belgrade during the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s have “also shaped a lot of sentiment” in the country.
The minister stressed that Serbia shares the EU’s fundamental principles and that she “feels bothered that people are questioning the value side of Serbia” over its reluctance to sanction Russia.
In another clash between Brussels and Belgrade, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen recently called on Serbia to “de facto recognize” Kosovo, which Belgrade regards as a breakaway republic that self-proclaimed its independence in 2008. But Serbia insists that recognition is a no-go.
Miščević said that such demands from Brussels are exaggerated given that five EU countries — Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain — do not recognize Kosovo themselves.
“Recognition is not the topic for the normalization process between Belgrade and Pristina. If recognition was the issue, the normalization then would not happen at all,” she said.
In 2023 Serbia and Kosovo agreed to “recognize their respective documents and national symbols, including passports, diplomas, licence plates, and customs stamps,” but stopped short of implementing the agreement.
The Serbian minister also demanded a greater role for candidate countries in shaping key reforms that will define the EU’s future structure.
EU leaders have kick-started talks on how to adapt the bloc to ensure it can absorb new member countries before the end of the decade.
“Serbia, whenever it joins the European Union, will not join the EU of today but the EU of tomorrow. So we should follow how the EU of tomorrow is supposed to be built and I am sure that there are a lot of issues that we can add to that development,” said Miščević.
In a nonbinding document earlier this week, a group of seven countries — including Italy, Greece and Austria — proposed, among other things, more regular participation of Balkan countries in EU foreign affairs ministers’ meetings in a bid to speed up integration of the region in the EU.