Scholz announced weeks ago that he would travel to the Balkans. He wanted to send the message that this region of Europe, neglected by the West, belongs in the EU.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) is setting off on a trip to the Balkans on Friday, which will primarily focus on the EU accession prospects for a total of six countries in the region. When announcing the trip in mid-May, he emphasized that he wanted to send the message: “The Western Balkans belong in the European Union.”

First on Friday we go to Kosovo and Serbia. Kosovo, which is predominantly inhabited by Albanians, broke away from Serbia in 1999 after a NATO intervention and declared its independence in 2008. To date, Serbia has not recognized this and continues to lay claim to the territory of the state recognized by Germany and most other EU countries, but not by Russia and China.

EU or Russia: Where is Serbia?

However, the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo will probably only play a secondary role during the trip. In Belgrade, the main question will be: Which side is Serbia on in the Ukraine war? The country with almost seven million inhabitants wants to become a member of the EU, but at the same time maintains friendly relations with Russia and China – two authoritarian countries with more than tense relations with the West. Sanctions against Russia are out of the question for Serbia, and the country is still grateful for cheap Russian gas.

However, the European Union is now increasingly openly calling on Serbia to show its colors. “Close relations with the regime of (Vladimir) Putin are no longer compatible with building a common future with the EU,” warned EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell last month.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, with whom Scholz is meeting on Friday afternoon, actually wanted to receive Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Belgrade at the beginning of the week. The visit failed only because the neighboring countries denied his plane use of their airspace.

Bulgaria blocks North Macedonia’s accession to the EU

On Friday evening, Scholz will travel to the northern Greek metropolis of Thessaloniki for a meeting of the Southeast European Cooperation Process, to which 13 countries in the region belong. On Saturday we continue to North Macedonia and Bulgaria. The main focus there will be on the conflict between the two countries over North Macedonia’s accession to the EU, which Bulgaria has been blocking for a long time.

A total of six Balkan countries are striving to join the European Union. Like Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo is a potential candidate for EU membership. Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia already have candidate status. For Scholz, EU enlargement to include the Western Balkan states has priority over Ukraine’s accession. The Chancellor stressed that out of consideration for these countries, there could be no shortcut for Ukraine. Next week, the EU Commission wants to position itself on whether Ukraine should become a candidate for EU membership.

Kosovo and Bosnia still have the longest way to the EU

This is how far the six accession candidates in the Balkans are from the EU:

SERBIA: The largest of these countries has been negotiating EU accession since 2014. So far, 18 out of 35 chapters have been opened, but only two have been provisionally closed. The country’s political leadership is unwilling to engage in real reforms.

MONTENEGRO: The small Adriatic country has been negotiating EU accession since 2012. All 33 chapters were opened, but only three were provisionally closed. Political instability increased in 2020, slowing down negotiations.

NORTH MACEDONIA: The country has been a candidate for accession for 17 years. In July 2020, the EU Commission basically gave the green light for concrete negotiations. But they are blocked by Bulgaria because of a dispute over history and the rights of the Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia.

ALBANIA: Like North Macedonia, Albania received the green light for accession negotiations from the EU Commission in July 2020. Since the EU is treating the two Balkan countries as a “package”, Albania is now hostage to Bulgaria’s blockade of North Macedonia.

BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA: The country that suffered the worst from the Yugoslav wars of disintegration in the 1990s has only the status of a potential candidate. Serbian and Croatian nationalists are blocking elementary legal reforms that would be necessary for genuine candidate status.

KOSOVO: Europe’s youngest state also only has potential candidate status. The reason for this is that five EU member states – Spain, Greece, Slovakia, Romania and Cyprus – do not recognize Kosovo as a state.