WASHINGTON -- The United States wants to see the integration of the Western Balkans into the European Union accelerate from its snail-like pace and will push to reinvigorate the process, a senior U.S. State Department official said.
Gabriel Escobar, who earlier this month was named acting deputy secretary of state for South Central Europe, overseeing a region he first served in various capacities from 1998 to 2001, also announced the United States has appointed a diplomat to help drive stalled electoral reform in Bosnia-Herzegovina ahead of key elections next year.
Escobar, who most recently served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Serbia, expressed some frustration about the lack of movement on EU membership for Balkan states over the past two decades.
“To return 20 years later and see that there hasn't been much progress on that front was a little disappointing,” Escobar told RFE/RL on September 17 during an interview at the State Department about his priorities and concerns for the region. “We would like to see a more rapid integration.”
The European Union has lost its appetite for rapidly expanding membership after bringing in 13 countries into the club since 2004, most of them less-wealthy former communist states.
Croatia was the last nation to join the 27-member bloc when its accession was completed in 2013.
Escobar said both the European Union and Western Balkan nations -- which include North Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina -- have challenges to overcome to make integration a reality, but said he hoped American engagement “can get both sides back on track.”
He will have his work cut out for him.
Bulgaria earlier this year blocked the start of EU accession talks with North Macedonia in a dispute over language and historical grievances. EU rules require consensus from its 27 members on many important issues, including expansion.
As Albania’s application to join the EU will be considered in tandem with North Macedonia, the veto has impacted Tirana as well.
Escobar said it was wrong for Bulgaria to use a bilateral dispute to stop North Macedonia’s EU aspirations.
He said some “good solutions” have been put forward to address the issue and that Washington would continue to push Sofia on finding a compromise.
“They are turning it into a multilateral issue that's affecting all of us,” he said of Sofia’s actions, adding it's a “strategic imperative” to get North Macedonia and Albania into the EU.
Escobar said he would like to see the accession talks for North Macedonia and Albania to begin this year, adding they “have earned it.”
Another tough issue facing Escobar as he seeks to champion EU integration for the region is the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo.
Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Belgrade and the intractable dispute is preventing both of them from potentially joining the EU.
More than 110 countries recognize Kosovo’s independence, including the United States and most EU nations.
The Trump administration in September 2020 brokered an agreement between the two nations to normalize economic and people ties as a trust-building exercise with the hope it would eventually lead to a political breakthrough.
However, little has been achieved so far, analysts say.
Escobar said the most immediate way to build trust is resolving the issue of missing persons. More than 1,600 people, mainly Kosovars, disappeared during the 1998-99 Kosovo war.
"That's a humanitarian issue that should not be blocked by political disputes. There are families who have been waiting years to figure out what happened to their loved ones. I just don't understand why there would be any lack of compromise,” he said.
Bosnia-Herzegovina will also be a handful for Escobar.
Some observers have been warning in recent years that the political situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina is deteriorating and could pull the multi-ethnic nation apart, impacting its hopes to join the EU.
Escobar said electoral reform is one of the first steps that needs to be addressed to make it a "more functional" state.
The country's election laws forbid a minority outside the three main ethnicities -- Bosniak, Croat, and Serb -- from running for high office and analysts have said it only serves to strengthen ethnic division.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this year appealed to the tripartite presidency to work toward at least modest reforms, including "limited constitutional change...to reform the electoral system."
With that goal in mind, Escobar announced that Matt Palmer, a deputy secretary of state who had been responsible for the Balkan region, will be Washington’s point man for electoral reform in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“I'm very happy that Matt [Palmer] is sticking around to do that part because he's got just tremendous knowledge, tremendous contacts, and a great vision for how elections in Bosnia should work," Escobar said.
Escobar said the elections need to be "more transparent...more responsive to the actual will of the people."
Bosnia will cast ballots for parliament in 2022, but the country’s constitution forbids changes to voting laws in the year of an election, putting pressure on Palmer and others involved in the talks to get something done by January 1.
Tanya Domi, a Bosnia expert and adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University, told RFE/RL she fears the Biden administration is seeking to cut a reform deal with local political elites that might solve one of the problems but “won’t change the fundamental issues on the ground.”