BRUSSELS — The European Union needs to pay more attention to the Balkans to prevent Russian President Vladimir Putin increasing his influence there, Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani-Sadriu told CNBC Wednesday.
The 27 members of the EU are expected to grant Ukraine candidate status to join the bloc this week — a first official step toward full membership. But it has reopened a tough and delicate debate within the EU over its expansion.
The EU has not welcomed any new countries since 2013, when Croatia joined the group. That's partly a result of the bloc's difficult political and economic environment: the shocks of the global financial crisis, its own sovereign debt crisis, and then a refugee wave from the Syrian civil war.
Those events bolstered support for populist parties across the region, leading many capitals to prioritize domestic problems over the expansion of EU membership.
But this has started to change, albeit slowly, following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
A recent survey by the European Parliament found that European support for EU membership is at a 15-year high.
The leaders of Germany, France and Italy visited Kyiv last week to voice their support for Ukraine's bid to join the bloc. The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, then said both Ukraine and Moldova were ready to move a step closer to membership, provided they put in place several reforms.
But some EU countries have reservations about reopening the bloc's doors.
Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa said the EU risks creating "false expectations" with Ukraine's bid to join. In an interview with the Financial Times, he added the EU should look to provide immediate support to Kyiv instead of opening "legal debates."
Joining the EU is traditionally a lengthy process, given that potential members have to align their political and judicial systems with those of the bloc.
Furthermore, opening the door to one nation could mean opening the door to several others.
Kosovo is one of a number of states in the Western Balkans, located in southern and eastern Europe, that have aspirations to join the European Union.
The country — which has been waiting for four years to have visa requirements lifted for travel to the European Union — enlargement of the bloc is a question of geopolitics.
"This is also an issue of EU credibility, and also the EU understanding that bringing the Western Balkans as a region, embracing it and bringing it to the table is also a strategic interest of the European Union itself, because as I said earlier, the more the EU takes its attention away, the more other malign actors will be using this space, mainly Russia," Osmani-Sadriu said.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008, and is recognized by 110 countries, including the United States, but not by Serbia and its ally Russia. It has yet to become a U.N. member state.
EU members Greece, Cyprus and Spain are also among those who do not recognize Kosovo as a sovereign nation, making its potential accession to the EU highly controversial.
"Now in the light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there's nothing more complex and more important than fighting autocratic, genocidal regimes, such as the Russian regime, because the more space is allowed for Russia to expand its influence in the European continent, the worst it will be for all of us, no matter whether we are within the EU or outside of the Union," Kosovo's president said.
The topic will be debated among European leaders Thursday. Whatever they decide and say to Ukraine will be closely watched across the Balkans.
Albania and North Macedonia, which changed its name in an effort to bolster its chances of joining the EU, previously received candidate status, but are still waiting for accession negotiations to begin.
"It is important how leaders explain enlargement to their people," Osmani-Sadriu said, adding that EU leaders need to emphasize that expansion of the bloc "is in the benefit of peace and stability of the entire European continent."