Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, lauded his ties with the Kremlin for shielding his country from the energy crisis at a summit with EU and western Balkans leaders, fuelling fears that China and Russia would be the beneficiaries as the bloc forestalled over enlargement.
As he arrived in Slovenia for the summit, Vučić told reporters he had been proven right in maintaining close ties with Beijing and Moscow despite EU concerns, describing Vladimir Putin as the “kingmaker” in energy.
The Serb leader added that the decision to ignore opposition from the US and others to a gas link with Russia was now paying dividends.
“Residents of Serbia are rational, they want to be a part of the world, a part of the European Union, but Serbian residents do not want to spoil relations with Russia and China, and this proved to be the right thing to do,” he said. “Why is it the right thing to do? If we had succumbed to pressure of foreign countries objecting the construction of the Russian pipeline we would have had problems this winter, with no more gas for Serbia coming via Beregovo.”
Vučić, a one-time minister for information in Slobodan Milošević’s Yugoslav government, added: “They [European countries] have run out of their supplies, and did not sign long-term purchase deals with the Russians, and now Putin is the absolute ‘kingmaker’, with the possibility to decide who [will buy] at what price, and how a price should be raised.”
The price of European gas contracts for delivery in November hit record highs this week, rising by 23% to €117.50 (£99.80) a megawatt hour, up from €18 six months ago.
As EU leaders ditched a proposal made by the Slovenian government to put a 2030 deadline on accession of the western Balkans six – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia – Vučić said he had no regrets over his foreign policy choices.
He said: “I have no illusions about a quick accession to the EU. The political needs of the EU are such that Balkan enlargement is neither a dominant nor a popular issue.
“All of a sudden, we are on the verge of the biggest crisis in Europe and all over the world since the coronavirus. The decision to build the pipeline despite all pressure that we were facing was a very smart one. We now have enough gas and electricity.”
While offering an “unprecedented” €30bn economic investment package for the region on Wednesday, the EU is divided over the necessity of accession and the speed at which it should happen.
Slovenia had sought to include a 2030 deadline for the six states joining the union in a post-summit statement but it was swiftly rebuffed by sceptical governments, such as the French and Dutch, who want to focus on improving the status quo.
Arriving at the summit, Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, repeated that the western Balkans six were destined to be part of the EU.
“We want to send a very clear message and that message is that western Balkans belong to the European Union, we want them in the European Union,” she said. “We share the same history, we share the same values, and I’m deeply convinced we share the same destiny too.”
But Kosovo’s prime minister, Albin Kurti, expressed his frustration at the slow rate of progress. Formal accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania were due to start in 2019 but are being held up. Bulgaria has been blackballing talks with North Macedonia due to a dispute over history and language.
“It has been a great injustice, a lack of fairness towards citizens of our country,” Kurti said, noting that five EU member states still did not recognise Kosovo as a sovereign state. “I advocate for a lack of fear on the EU’s side, and a lack of bitterness on the side of the Balkans. I am still hopeful.”
The Latvian prime minister, Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš, spoke of his concerns over the opening being offered to systemic rivals by the EU’s attitude to enlargement.
He said: “Here is an example of where, if we want to make Europe stronger and also extend our geopolitical influence, this is our back yard.”
Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s chancellor, added: “If the European Union does not offer this region a real perspective, we have to be aware that other superpowers – China, Russia or Turkey – will play a bigger role there. The region belongs to Europe geographically, and it needs a European perspective.”