BRUSSELS -- Discord over the form and substance of a final joint statement for the European Union’s flagship Western Balkans summit in Sofia threatens to derail the meeting more than a month before it is to take place.
The meeting of the bloc’s 28 member states and six Western Balkan states -- Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia -- was to be the centerpiece of Bulgaria’s presidency of the Council of the EU.
But the presence of Kosovo is contentious for EU members Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain -- which do not recognize Pristina’s independence -- and is complicating the crafting of a document to conclude the May 17 summit.
The first draft of what is still tentatively called the "Sofia Summit declaration," produced by the 28 EU member states and seen by RFE/RL, was debated by EU ambassadors for the first time at the end of March.
Although very little political content currently exists in the 13-paragraph draft, Spain, Cyprus, Greece, and Romania are unhappy calling the document a declaration and would rather downgrade it to "Bulgarian presidency conclusions" or produce a declaration signed only by EU members and not the six Western Balkans countries, according to a diplomat who is familiar with the talks but is not authorized to speak on the record about them.
Bulgaria, which has put the region's integration high on its agenda, is seeking to reassure fellow EU members that it is holding Kosovo to "status neutrality." Officials from Kosovo have previously participated in similar meetings with the designation so as not to offend other participants.
Kosovo, a former Serbian province which declared independence in 2008 after fighting a bloody conflict with Serbia, remains unrecognized by Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain because of aspirations of autonomy by people in those countries.
Spain's stance comes amid fallout from an October 2017 independence referendum in the Catalonia region that Madrid has declared illegal.
Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva told state television on April 3 that among the leaders of the dissenters, only Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had yet to confirm his participation in the official events of the summit.
Spain's reluctance comes on top of a report from RFE/RL's Balkan Service citing EU sources as saying on condition of anonymity that Romania and Cyprus are refusing to participate at a summit where "Kosovo is treated as a state and where this country is promised the future of European integration."
Zaharieva, who has noted the meeting isn't about EU enlargement, called the concerns "protocol issues" that will be resolved before the summit, the first of its kind in 15 years, gets under way.
"The purpose of this meeting is to give the Western Balkan countries a wider European perspective. The strategy of the European Commission talks about the perspectives of all six of them and I don’t think [the summit] will be a failure," Zaharieva said on Bulgarian state television.
Some of the five states that don’t recognize Kosovo are also unhappy about the EU enlargement language in the draft, which states that "the EU reaffirms its unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans," according to the diplomat.
Diplomats said that several other countries, such as Austria, Croatia, and Italy are keen on preserving the ambitious language pointing to the last Western Balkans summit, in 2003, in which the EU unequivocally stated that all countries in the region would become members at some point.
Other passages in the Sofia draft include a line that says the “Western Balkan partners acknowledge the primacy of democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights and rights of persons belonging to minorities. Their effective implementation of reforms rests on these foundations."
Addressing the many bilateral issues in the region, the document also states that the six countries "pledge to strengthen good neighborly relations, regional stability and mutual cooperation. This includes in particular finding definitive and binding solutions for their bilateral disputes rooted in the legacy of the past."
While no other countries are mentioned in the text, it makes a possible reference to both Russia and Turkey by stating that "we decided to fight, together, attempts at external disinformation through greater resilience, cyber and strategic communication collaboration."
The annex of the draft declaration is based on a concrete proposal to increase connections between the Western Balkans and the EU.
Suggestions in the annex include work to complete the regional electricity market in the Western Balkans, support for a new rail strategy to bring the Western Balkans into the main EU network, launching a digital agenda for the Western Balkans, which includes a road map to lower roaming costs, and doubling funding for the Erasmus+ student exchange program.
Support for the Blue Highway project connecting the coastal areas of Croatia, Montenegro, and Albania and the Peace Highway project connecting the Serbian city of Nis with Pristina are also mentioned.