By Daria Sito-Sucic
MOUNTJAHORINA, Bosnia (Reuters) – Short-sighted anti-immigrant populism in some European Union member states has blocked the integration of Western Balkan countries into the EU, weakening the region’s stability, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday.
He was speaking at a 12-nation Balkans summit where leaders voiced deep disappointment with the EU’s lack of follow-through on promises to open membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania, opposed by northern EU countries.
In June, EU governments unexpectedly put off a decision to start the talks with the two and cast doubt on the bloc’s existing strategy to counter a growing Russian and Chinese presence in the Balkans.
Erdogan and other speakers at the Balkans gathering held near the Bosnian capital Sarajevo criticised the EU over its reluctance to pursue further enlargement of the bloc.
“Recently we have seen that some short-sighted populist circles have blocked EU enlargement policy. Negative trends toward division and discrimination have spread across the continent and endanger not only internal peace within the EU but…hope and potential of the (Balkans) region.”
The EU’s appetite for further enlargement has been eroded by anti-immigration sentiment among voters and by increased criticism of the 28-nation bloc’s already complex and lumbering decision-making processes.
France and the Netherlands, with support from Denmark, also may seek further conditions such as more reform to tackle corruption and organised crime in Albania and Macedonia.
Turkey’s own bid for EU membership, launched back in 2004, has been stalled for years, with EU officials citing Ankara’s disregard for human rights and civil liberties under Erdogan. Some EU leaders want the talks to be scrapped. Erdogan has blamed alleged prejudice against Muslims for the impasse.
Montenegro President Milo Djukanovic called on other Western Balkan leaders to come up with a clear, common approach regarding expectations for relations with the EU.
“We are concerned about enlargement policy being slowed down and being made vague,” Djukanovic said, adding that other countries of the region had also received discouraging signals regarding the EU accession process.
He said the EU had failed to abolish visa requirements for Kosovo citizens or approve the opening of the last chapter in Montenegro’s accession process, while postponing the approval of Bosnia’s candidate status for later this year.
“I believe the issue of a real enlargement perspective will have to be opened very soon – whether we, the countries of the Western Balkans and the EU, are privileged partners or we are going back to the position of neighbours who (merely) share concern about the future of our common continent,” he said.
Western Balkans states that comprised the former Yugoslavia were wracked by ethnic war in the 1990s, and tensions linger.
Erdogan also paid respect to victims of the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica, laying flowers on trucks bearing the coffins of 33 among the 8,000 Muslim men and boys massacred by Bosnian Serb forces. The remains, which were exhumed from mass graves, will be reburied in a ceremony on July 11, the massacre anniversary.
(Additional reporting by Maja Zuvela in Sarajevo; Editing by Mark Heinrich)