Sofia Summit Cannot Be Undervalued
By Genc Mlloja
Albanian Daily News
Published April 6, 2018
What has been expected to be a milestone not for only Bulgaria, a country having a 10- year membership in the European Union, but for the entire region where it belongs- the Balkans, the Sofia Summit is being preceded by some controversial procedure issues having to do with the regular and rightful participation of Kosovo in it. The Sofia Summit is scheduled to be held on May 17, 2018.
Bulgaria's initial enthusiasm to be the 'engine' of the EU enlargement drive for the Western Balkans countries in its capacity as the Chair of the rotating Presidency of the EU Council until July 1 this year seems to have unexpectedly damped, particularly by a demand of Spanish Foreign Ministry which has gone so far as to require the exclusion of Kosovo from an EU plan to accelerate Western Balkans enlargement.
Bulgaria's EU Presidency Added Chance for Balkans
Turning a bit back in time when Bulgaria unveiled its platform it was significant one of its four-priority agenda which included the topic: European prospects and connectivity of the Western Balkans. Elaborating on this topic when official Sofia unveiled its EU Presidency platform on January 1, it pledged strongly to support the EU accession-drive of the six Western Balkan countries (WB6), their related reforms in that frame putting them high on the EU agenda in view of peace and stability in that region. "Bulgaria is intent on making the best use of its regional expertise, without creating any false expectations, to support EU accession-related reforms in the Western Balkan states and put them high on the EU agenda in view of the peace and stability in that region. At the same time the Presidency will work to provide more geopolitical and economic support for the Western Balkans through improving their road, railway, air, digital, educational and energy connectivity to the EU; digital economy and skills for the future: with a focus of completing the EU digital single market and development of digital economy and skills. This file includes the cyber security package, the copyright directive, the free flow of non-personal data, the e-communications code, e-privacy etc.," pledged the platform.
Such an ambitious target of Bulgaria was applauded by WB6 authorities, diplomatic circles, businesses, and analysts, including those from Albania. Some saw greater possibilities in Bulgaria's efforts as it belongs to the region, is neighbor of some countries and more or less knows better and in deeper details the problems of them having passed through stages which seem to be similar to those that WB6 should traverse.
"Bulgaria has chosen some priorities which its diplomacy is aware of and has the capabilities to handle. One of these priorities is to give new impulses to the EU integration of the Western Balkans, which is in line with the 'Berlin Process'. So it should be believed that the efforts of the Bulgarian Presidency will also have the support of the European powers, a fact that adds to the chances for success. For our region it is an added chance when a state of this space undertakes an influencing role in EU as it is the rotating Presidency. The success of this Presidency is, as a matter of fact, a success for us," Albania's former FM BesnikMustafaj had told Albanian Daily News a few days after Sofia took over the EU Presidency.
To materialize some of these objectives Bulgaria as Chair of Presidency of the EU Council had planned and worked hard to host the leaders of the EU members and the six Western Balkans countries, including Kosovo, at an EU-Western Balkans Summit scheduled for 17 May. Its declared target is supposed to be the finalization of an agreement on transport, energy and digital connections in this region.
Spain Wants Kosovo Out
While everything seemed to be on the right track, the Bulgarian EU Presidency has been faced with some problems raised by some of the five countries, which have not recognized Kosovo, with regard to participation and protocol procedures in the Summit.
The first signal was given by the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy who has told his Bulgarian colleague BoykoBorissov in no uncertain terms that he has a problem with the Western Balkans summit in Sofia, and may not even come if Kosovo is participating.
Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, and is involved in an EU mediated dialogue with Serbia to find an acceptable solution to their dispute, has not been recognized by Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia and Romania because of their own issues with regions seeking autonomy. Kosovo is recognized by 116 countries worldwide and has been accepted in many international organizations a process which goes on.
But Spanish Foreign Ministry has gone further than its Premier claiming that Kosovo should be excluded from an EU plan to accelerate Western Balkans enlargement. "The concept of 'WB6' does not fit the enlargement dynamic. Kosovo is not part of the enlargement process and has its own differentiated framework," said Madrid's diplomatic headquarters in an informal paper sent to the European Commission and seen by EUobserver.
It is the case to mention a piece of 'advice' by Brussels, when Bulgaria took the EU Presidency, according to which good will is important, but political circumstances in the member states and efforts by the region itself would have a 'decisive role'. So anyone has the right to ask: Had Brussels' officials been aware that the Sofia Summit could be faced with problems? If we analyze what is happening it can be said 'Yes', but the great 'unknown' is how Brussels will get engaged to contribute to overcome the situation and make the Summit a success as the majority of the invitees wish.
"The fact that any EU member country might not come is unlikely to stop the Summit from going ahead," a diplomatic source told Albanian Daily News on condition of anonymity, but given the fact that Bulgaria has never hosted an international meeting of this magnitude before and the event is to be the highlight of its presidency any 'boycott' might underestimate its importance. "But, nevertheless, nothing serious is expected to happen as the enlargement process towards WB cannot be stopped."
Summit Cannot Be Undermined; Serbia's 'Bravery' Futile
Against the background of 'to go or not to go' ambiguity veiling the stance of Spain and any other countries which have not recognized Kosovo, Serbia, an EU candidate country, is trying to make the best of the situation claiming that it was weighing its 'options'!
Speaking on April 3, Serbian president AleksandarVucic said Belgrade awaits the outcome of meetings between Serbian and Kosovo officials next week before he decides. Serb Prime Minister Ana Brnabic earlier on April 2 noted that the possible presence of Kosovo's representatives at the EU summit on Western Balkans in Sofia is "political nonsense". Serbia might attend if Pristina establishes the association of Serb municipalities in Kosovo in accordance with an earlier agreement negotiated with the help of the EU, said Brnabic.
Whenever there is an issue regarding territorial disputes, international recognition or independence, Kosovo is the first topic to be brought into the discussion by Serbia. After the turbulent situation in Catalonia following the independence vote on 1 October last year, Serbia was quick to accuse the international community of double standards regarding Kosovo.
Will Serbia boycott the Sofia Summit if the conditions put forward by its authorities are not met? Anything can be expected because there have been other cases when they went their way. But in the current circumstances such an act would have a special significance given the warnings of the West of an escalation of Russia's efforts to expand its influence in the Western Balkans.
Serbia has insistently declared that it would not sacrifice Russia ties for EU membership. "Serbia will continue to pursue its own policies and we expect to get understanding from the EU. If not, Serbia is an independent and free country," Serbia's President AleksandarVucic said on February 22, 2018, when Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov visited Belgrade. Sofia event is an EU Summit, and an eventual boycott by Serbia would mean a lot for its future endeavor to join the Club.
But in a tit-for-tat reaction to Serbia's stance Kosovo's deputy premier EnverHoxhaj in a Tweet on April 3, 2018 as quoted by Pristina-based website Gazeta Express said such actions are making impossible the dialogue on normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. Hoxhaj said that Kosovo will act proportionally because such actions are against normalization of relations.
"Aggressive campaign from Serbia to revoke our recognitions and publicly speaking against Kosovo's participation in the EU Summit in Sofia are making the dialogue between two countries impossible. Kosovo will act proportionally because such actions are against normalizing relations," Hoxhaj underlined.
Kosovo's Prime Minister RamushHaradinaj will attend the Summit, Pristina-based website Gazeta Express reported on April 3.
Sofia and Brussels Expect Summit to Deliver
Bulgaria has recently stepped up its diplomatic drive to neutralize as much as possible the negative effect of the situation created on the eve of the Summit when, as analysts say, the main task is to work on its deliberations and documents so that the Summit can deliver, rather than be recorded as the event of the turn hosted by an EU member country having Club's Presidency. Part of this drive has apparently been the message conveyed by Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva who has denied that Kosovo's attendance at the May summit in Sofia, the highlight of Sofia's EU Presidency, will result in some countries boycotting it.
All but one head of government of the five EU states that have not recognized Kosovo as an independent state have confirmed their attendance at the EU-Western Balkans summit in Sofia in May, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva said as quoted by BIRN on April 4. In a TV interview on Tuesday she said that only Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had not confirmed his attendance of the formal part of the summit between EU member states and the six Western Balkan states on May 17 in Sofia.
The statement from the Bulgarian minister comes after Radio Free Europe on March 30 published a report on its Serbian program, saying that EU sources had told the media that Romania and Cyprus would not participate in an event where "Kosovo is treated as a state and where this country is promised the future of European integration". Zaharieva brushed aside these claims, saying these are protocol issues that will be dealt with.
"The purpose of this meeting is to give the Western Balkan nations 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 told bTV on April 4.
The question, she added, is what will be included in the post-summit declaration and who will sign it - the 28 EU member states or the 28 plus the six Western Balkan states.
Earlier the spokesperson of the Bulgarian EU presidency, GenovevaCervenakova unveiled her government's option according to which the Summit is expected to be held with Kosovo's presence, but by respecting the "neutrality" for the status. Bulgaria is seeking to reassure countries that it respects Kosovo's 'status neutrality', a term referring to the notion that the EU does not prejudge Kosovo's status. Kosovo officials always participate in regional meetings with a footnote referring to status-neutrality. "We're aware of the importance of the relations of the member countries which have not recognized Kosovo with this country and we're working to address this issue," said the spokesperson of the Bulgarian EU presidency, Cervenakova.
Nevertheless, she tried to keep high the expectations of Bulgaria saying that the objective is for the Summit to be attended by all 28 member countries and to send out a message of unity for Western Balkan's European integration, which is one of the priorities of the Bulgarian presidency.
Reports say that Spain, Romania and Cyprus are the biggest opponents of Kosovo's participation as a state in this summit. For example, according to them, the issue is especially sensitive for Spain since Catalonia has recently attempted to break away from it.
"These countries are considering diplomatic ways to display their reservations at the Western Balkans summit scheduled for 17 May... One option could be for their officials to take part only in the working dinner the day before the summit, and have another member state represent them at the summit itself," said a report by the Sofia Globe on April 3.
In conclusion it is important to note that the Council of the EU is optimistic on the Sofia Summit which, according to it, will aim to inject new energy in the EU-Western Balkans relationship. It will seek to reaffirm the EU's commitment towards its Western Balkans partners and reiterate the region's belonging to the European family; to strengthen links between the EU and the Western Balkans in infrastructure, digital and human connectivity; to work more closely together to tackle common challenges, such as security, migration, geopolitical developments and good neighborly relations. In February this year Donald Tusk stressed the importance of the summit for building strong connections with the Western Balkans: "We will aim to strengthen connections both with and within the region. This spans from more investments in transport infrastructure, through multiplication of educational and cultural exchanges to making communication among our citizens easier and faster. The summit will also aim to boost cooperation in areas of mutual interest, including security and migration."

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