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EU Countries Agree On Thorny Text Of Western Balkans Summit Declaration

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini (center), with Kosovar President Hashim Thaci (left) and his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic (file photo)

BRUSSELS – The 28 European Union member states have agreed on a draft declaration ahead of the EU-Western Balkans summit on May 17 in Sofia, overcoming internal divisions.

The draft, seen by RFE/RL, was agreed by EU ambassadors late on April 19 and will now be sent to the six Western Balkans countries participating in the summit: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia.

The presence of Kosovo has complicated the drafting with five EU members -- Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain – that are not recognizing Pristina’s independence.

According to diplomats who spoke to RFE/RL, some of the five were unhappy about calling the document a “declaration” and would prefer to call it the “Bulgarian Presidency conclusions” or to produce a declaration endorsed only by the EU but not by the six Western Balkan countries. The diplomats spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter on the record.

The compromise forged according to the draft is that it would be called “the Sofia declaration” but with a statement in brackets, after the 16 points of the declaration, saying that “we note that our Western Balkans partners align themselves with the above points.”

The six Western Balkan countries are not mentioned by name and are referred to as “partners,” as supposed to “states” or “countries,” in an apparent effort to ease concerns about the reference to Kosovo’s status.

Kosovo, a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008 after a bloody conflict with Serbia almost a decade earlier, remains unrecognized by the five EU member states due to aspirations of autonomy by people in those countries.

Spain has adopted a tough stance amid the fallout from what Madrid says was an illegal October 2017 independence referendum in the Catalonia region. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy indicated that he won’t participate in the summit due to Kosovo’s presence.

Elsewhere in the document, the language about the EU enlargement perspective of the region has been strengthened by referring to the previous EU-Western Balkans summit in 2002 in the Greek city of Thessaloniki, where EU member states agreed that the Western Balkans one day will be part of the European Union.

It says that “recalling the Thessaloniki summit of 2003, the EU reaffirms its unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans. Building on the progress achieved so far, the Western Balkans partners have recommitted to the European perspective as their firm strategic choice, to reinforcing their efforts and mutual support. The credibility of these efforts depends on clear public communication.”

That language will please countries such as Austria, Italy, and Sweden that are keen for the EU to take in Western Balkans countries. But at the same time, countries in the Western Balkans are likely to point out that no firmer commitment to their eventual membership has been achieved in 15 years.

Commenting on several disputes that persist among the Western Balkan nations, most notably between Serbia and Kosovo, the draft declaration notes that “the EU supports the Western Balkans partners pledge to continue strengthening good neighborly relations, regional stability and mutual cooperation. This includes in particular finding and implementing definitive, inclusive, and binding solutions for their bilateral disputes rooted in the legacy of the past and devoting additional efforts to reconciliation.”

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.