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What the Western Balkans Expect From the EU

ENLARGEMENT COUNTDOWN: With just over 24 hours to go until the Commission publishes its long-awaited enlargement report, hopes are high in the Western Balkans that the EU will finally push ahead with those countries’ membership bids.

The elephant in the room: The political chatter in Brussels and across EU capitals centers on whether the Commission will back the start of accession talks with Ukraine — but most Western Balkan countries have been waiting in line for over a decade and are keen to finally see some progress.

A decade of hurt: Serbia, Montenegro and North Macedonia obtained candidate status — the first major step toward EU accession — over 10 years ago, but have been stuck in sluggish membership talks ever since.

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Putin keeps reaping dividends: But Russia’s war against Ukraine gave new momentum to EU enlargement and revived the membership bids of most countries from the Western Balkans. “I see now that there is more political push, there is momentum,” Serbia’s interim Ambassador to the EU Danijel Apostolovic told Playbook. “Because of the war and the new geopolitical context, they [the Commission] want to speed up a little bit of the process but, they say, the process must remain merit-based,” he said.

Last night at Hebdo: The Commission backed the opening of accession negotiations with Ukraine, Moldova and — to the surprise of many — Bosnia and Herzegovina, according to a draft proposal that was circulated in the weekly meeting of the heads of Cabinet (the so-called Hebdo), several officials said.

Bosnia backlash: Rumors of Sarajevo’s green light didn’t go down well among some EU diplomats, who angrily pointed to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s alleged backsliding on the rule of law. “We granted Bosnia candidate status under the premise that that would incentivize reforms, and ever since we’ve only seen the rule of law and political situation deteriorate. How can we now decide to open negotiations with them and still expect that other candidate countries diligently do their reforms?” an EU diplomat fumed.

And more: There were also plenty of raised eyebrows at the Commission’s proposal — according to several officials — to give Georgia candidate status, despite concerns around its pro-Russia leanings.

Balkans back on the agenda: Brussels is stepping up its engagement with Balkan countries ahead of a crunch summit of EU leaders, who have the last word on whether to press ahead with the Commission’s enlargement proposals. The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell invited his counterparts from the region to discuss foreign policy in Brussels on November 13, three senior diplomats told Playbook. Speculation is rife that Balkan leaders will meet their EU counterparts for a special summit in Brussels on December 13 — the day before the European Council summit.

Eyes on Belgrade: The biggest and most powerful country in the region, Serbia, has been vying to enter the EU since the Thessaloniki summit in 2003. But over recent years its push has stalled over its refusal to adopt sanctions against Russia.

Not forgotten: “We think that sanctions are not the way to resolve the things considering that the Serbian population was faced with sanctions in the 1990s,” Apostolovic, Serbia’s envoy to Brussels, told us. “Citizens are very much against it because with sanctions you’re blaming the whole population.”

Montenegro in pole position: The small Western Balkan country is the odds-on favorite to become the EU’s 28th member country, as Commission President Ursula von der Leyen indicated in a recent visit to Podgorica. “Our ambition is to become the 28th member state by 2028,” its Ambassador to the EU Petar Markovic told Playbook, adding that the main roadblock is the appointment of three senior heads of the judiciary by the national parliament, for which there has been no majority.

Making progress: The EU’s rules don’t allow Montenegro to close other accession chapters until it has cleared this hurdle, but Markovic expressed hopes that the new government might soon deliver on this.


ISRAEL FEARS EROSION OF WESTERN SUPPORT: Israel’s envoy to the EU Haim Regev vented fears that the West’s support to his country is starting to wobble one month on from Hamas’ brutal attack. “We got strong support so far, but we start to see the erosion of the support because of what’s going on inside Gaza and because Hamas is using the population as a human shield,” Regev said in a conversation at POLITICO’s Brussels office on Monday.

With friends like these: Regev praised the EU’s reaction to the attacks on October 7, but issued scathing verdicts on several ideas raised by leaders over the last month.

Peace conference? The Israeli diplomat lashed out at calls from EU leaders — led by Spain’s Pedro Sánchez — for a peace conference within the next six months. “It’s not the time to speak about the peace conference right now. We are now in war against Hamas and as long as Hamas is there, I don’t see any peace prospect.”

Humanitarian conference? Regev was equally dismissive toward the “humanitarian conference” to be hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on November 9 — to which he said Israel hadn’t been invited. “Like many, we do not understand what’s going to happen there,” the Israeli envoy told us. “We only hope that it will not turn into a kind of anti-Israeli platform to criticize Israel, to call for a cease-fire.”

Speaking of cease-fires: The Israeli diplomat implied that Western politicians calling for a break in the fighting in Gaza — including Sánchez and U.N. chief António Guterres — are inadvertently playing into Hamas’ hands. He suggested the calculus might have been to carry out the October 7 attack betting that international pressure would have eventually forced Israel to halt its military response.

‘Tactical little pauses’: In an interview with ABC News, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was considering “tactical little pauses” in fighting to allow aid into Gaza and to move hostages out. “We’ve had them before, I suppose, we’ll check the circumstances in order to enable goods, humanitarian goods to come in, or our hostages, individual hostages to leave,” he said. However, he dismissed the idea of a cease-fire.

Two-state solution? Speaking to POLITICO, Regev brushed away any talk of a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians — which has been the EU’s official position for a long time. “So, talking about the day after not only of Gaza, but of a two-state solution, is too far,” Regev said: “We need to recover mentally and physically, and we need to understand why it’s happened.”

Guess who just talked about that: Earlier on Monday, von der Leyen set out her five points on what should happen after the end of the conflict and restated her support for a two-state solution in a speech to EU ambassadors.

VDL’s 5 points in a nutshell: 1) Gaza cannot remain a “safe haven for terrorists,” which could be achieved through “an international peace force under U.N. mandate” … 2) “Hamas cannot control or govern Gaza,” meaning “there should be only one Palestinian Authority and one Palestinian state” … 3) No long-term Israeli security presence in Gaza … 4) No forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza … 5) No sustained blockade of Gaza, as “the policy has not worked.”

But these are only the Commission’s ideas. A senior EU official hit back that von der Leyen’s five points express the Commission’s view — not necessarily that of the whole EU. “Certainly, if the president of the Commission has launched some ideas we welcome these ideas, but the president of the Commission is speaking on behalf of the Commission,” the official said.

King Abdullah in town: Today, von der Leyen will discuss her ideas for the “day after” with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Brussels. He’ll also meet with Council chief Charles Michel and Parliament President Roberta Metsola.

Money for Gaza: On Monday, von der Leyen also announced a €25 million increase in humanitarian aid to Gaza, which brings the total figure to over €100 million this year, my colleague Jacopo Barigazzi reports.

TIME RUNNING OUT FOR NETANYAHU: Meanwhile, Netanyahu has just a few weeks to eliminate Hamas, as public opinion rapidly swings against the IDF’s attacks on Gaza, former Israeli PM and chief of the Israeli Defense Forces Ehud Barak told my colleague Jamie Dettmer in an exclusive interview. Barak also suggested a multinational Arab force could take control of Gaza after the military campaign to take over from Hamas. Read Jamie’s full interview here.

NOW READ: Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has said his country would consider participating in a sea corridor to get humanitarian aid to Gaza if ships could operate with “full protection.” “Because of our geography, if we can deliver humanitarian aid in an organized manner and ensure that this aid reaches those who actually needed it the most, we would be happy to do so,” Mitsotakis told POLITICO’s Power Play podcast.

Source : Politico