Frustration over blocked membership talks and vaccine deliveries gives Russia and China a chance, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev told Politico in an interview, warning the EU that it’s taken a reputational hit in the Balkans and will lose more ground to rival powers if it doesn’t start membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania soon.
In the interview conducted when he visited Athens last week, Zaev said a failure to start talks would affect not just North Macedonia and Albania but also the wider Western Balkan region. If the EU is not seen to keep its promises in the region, he added, that would also give Kosovo and Serbia less incentive to resolve their differences in EU-sponsored talks and make it less likely Bosnia and Herzegovina to tackle necessary reforms.
According to Zaev, if the region’s journey toward the EU slows down, “there is more space” for other powers, Russia and China in particular.
Zaev also dismissed an idea floated by European Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi of moving ahead with membership talks for Albania while keeping North Macedonia on hold.
“There is a clear message of no decoupling and I hope that Bulgaria will be reasonable,” Zaev told Politico.
In the interview, Zaev describes the problems between Sofia and Skopje as “not substantial”, expressing optimism that an end to the stalemate with Bulgaria could be found.
He said he hoped the most powerful Western governments, including President Joe Biden’s new U.S. administration, would help resolve the standoff.
If there is no breakthrough, he warns, the enlargement process will be frozen for at least a year and a half, while elections take place in Bulgaria and in big EU powers Germany and France.
“So many sacrifices. And after that the EU doesn’t deliver? That is a problem. We show more European values and European manners than the EU,” Zaev says.