U.S. senators and the country's top envoy to the Western Balkans have criticized the European Union for failing to start membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia, saying it opens the door for greater Russian influence.
"We provide an option for the Balkans to look West, not to look back towards Russia and the east," Senator Jeanne Shaheen (Democrat-New Hampshire) said on October 23 in opening remarks at a hearing dedicated to the region.
She continued: "And whenever we fail in that opportunity -- as I think the EU did recently -- it sends a very strong message to the Western Balkans that they should not continue with the reforms that they should not continue to look west and embrace the values of the West."
EU ministers on October 15 didn't give approval for membership negotiations to begin with the two Balkan states on the grounds that they were not prepared. It was the third time -- following similar outcomes in June 2018 and June 2019 -- that the 28-member bloc's ministers failed to reach unanimity.
France and the Netherlands, in particular, have expressed reluctance to open the door to new members over concerns about corruption and the standards of the rule of law in some applicants.
The U.S. special envoy to the Western Balkans, Matthew Palmer, told the senators that the State Department was "profoundly disappointed" with the EU's decision.
He said the United States agreed with the EU's May 2019 assessment that both countries had made "significant progress" on reforms and that the momentum would continue.
Palmer said the European Council's inaction "undercuts EU credibility in the region," discourages the willingness of leaders to implement tough reforms, and "creates a leadership void that Russia, China and, others would be more than happy to fill."
The status of the Kosovo-Serbia reconciliation talks was a top focus of the Senate committee hearing, which also featured statements by two analysts on the region.
Serbia does not recognize Kosovo, which declared independence from Belgrade in 2008. More than 110 countries, including the United States, recognize Kosovo.
Tensions between Kosovo and Serbia have escalated over the past year after Pristina imposed a 100 percent tariff on all Serbian goods in retaliation for what it said were Belgrade's efforts to undermine the young republic on the international stage, including membership in Interpol.
Officials from the two countries haven't held peace talks since November, but the process can't restart until Kosovo forms a new government. The country held elections earlier this month that ended the dominance of parties led by former independence fighters.
Palmer told the senators Kosovo must form a government quickly and get back to the negotiating table because "time is not on their side."
He said the United States was encouraging the two sides to make concessions to reach an agreement on the normalization of relations. Palmer called on Kosovo to cancel the tariffs it imposed last year.
Earlier this month, President Donald Trump appointed Richard Grenell as special envoy for the Serbia and Kosovo peace negotiations. Grenell is also the ambassador to Germany.
The State Department appointed Palmer, a deputy assistant secretary, in August as the special representative for the Western Balkans with a mandate to help integrate the region into Western institutions.
Palmer said the EU decision last week undermined the West's effort to relaunch talks by sending a message to negotiators that even if they make the "hard choices" required to reach a deal, they can "still be denied a path forward to Europe."
He said that when the talks did resume, he expected Russia to attempt to undermine them in order to prevent the region from integrating with Europe.