EU's Balkan strategy losing local support, internal paper warns

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A large European Union flag lies at the centre of Schuman square, outside the European Commission headquarters, on the eve of Europe Day, commemorating the declaration made by Robert Schuman in 1950, in Brussels, Belgium, May 8, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo

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BRUSSELS, May 12 (Reuters) - The European Union must recognise that Balkan countries seeking membership are losing faith in Brussels' long accession strategy, worsened by its initial failure to provide COVID-19 vaccines, according to an internal EU document seen by Reuters.

Europe and the United States say that Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia will one day become members of the club of 27 states, following the ethnic wars of the 1990s that led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

But China and Russia, whose trade and investment levels in the Balkans are far less than the EU's, are gaining influence, outsmarting the bloc by offering COVID-19 vaccines quickly during the pandemic.

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"We need to acknowledge that despite the steadfast commitment to EU integration ... the people in the region are experiencing a sense of deep disappointment in the enlargement process," said the May 5 paper by EU officials and sent to EU's 27 foreign ministries.

"A perception of tardy EU delivery of the COVID-19 vaccines has further fed a narrative of disillusionment," said the paper, which was prepared for Monday's meeting of foreign ministers, who discussed the Balkans but did not take formal decisions.

After years of EU neglect of the region, Croatia organised an EU summit in May 2020 to give new impetus to Balkan integration. North Macedonia and Albania were meant to launch membership talks at the end of the last year.

But Bulgaria refuses to allow North Macedonia to move ahead, citing language and cultural disputes. read more

France held up proceedings in 2019 with scepticism over Albanian and North Macedonian efforts on democracy and fighting corruption.

The European Commission, the EU executive, insists Albania and North Macedonia must move forward together. However, a suggestion by EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi this month - later withdrawn - that only Albania should start entry talks, added to a sense of disarray, EU diplomats said.

EU ministers were unable to break the deadlock at a meeting in Brussels on Tuesday.

Membership talks with Serbia and Montenegro, the pair seen as furthest ahead in the accession process, have also slowed, while Bosnia and Kosovo have yet to be formally designated as EU membership candidates.

"The widespread perception in the Western Balkans is that the prospect of accession is receding and that European inspirations are lost under a complex set of conditions and procedures," the internal report said.

The bloc is now sending 650,000 doses of Western-made vaccines to the six Balkan countries, but only after China and Russia distributed millions of their doses in the region.

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Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Giles Elgood

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