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Enlargement back on EU agenda at Western Balkans summit

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TIRANA, Albania (AP) — The war in Ukraine has the expansion of the European Union at the top of the agenda as Western Balkans and EU leaders meet on Tuesday for a summit aimed at reinvigorating the entire enlargement process.

The EU’s executive commission has repeatedly promised Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia that they have a future within the bloc. But progress by the six nations in achieving this has stalled in recent years.

As war rages in neighboring Ukraine, Albanian Prime Minister and summit host Edi Rama called on the EU to translate its words into action.

“You need the Balkans – the Western Balkans – as much as the Western Balkans need the EU,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We must increasingly face the future together. »

The EU last admitted a new member – Croatia, also part of the Balkans – in 2013. Before that, Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007. With the UK withdrawing in 2021 , the EU now has 27 member countries.

Although divisions remain between them over the pace of accession negotiations and some complex bilateral issues, EU officials say it is more crucial than ever to precise the six nations of the Western Balkans They belong to the European family and therefore do not turn in frustration to Russia or China.

“Enlargement policy is among the three main priorities of EU leaders,” said European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi during a visit to the Serbian capital Belgrade, the last week. “The only real long-term solution for peace, stability and prosperity is EU membership. »

EU leaders agreed in June to present Moldova and Ukraine as candidates for membership and said Georgia would be eligible to apply once the country achieved certain targets set by the European Commission.

A month later, the EU began accession negotiations with Albania And North Macedonia after years of delay. Bosnia The country took a small step closer to joining the powerful economic bloc when the commission in October advised member countries to grant it candidate status despite persistent criticism of the way the country is run.

Kosovo has only begun the first step, with the signing of a Stabilization and Association Agreement. He indicated he would apply for candidate status later this month.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg insisted last week that support Moldova, Georgia and Bosnia was crucial in the context of the war. Stoltenberg noted that Bosnia, where Russian interference and ethnic tensions have long created political instability, is “important for the stability of the entire Western Balkans.”

But the problem for the waiting countries is that the EU has not deemed their economies and political institutions ready to be integrated into the European single market, based on open trade and Western democratic ideals.

“None are close to joining the EU,” said Luigi Scazzieri, a researcher at the Center for European Reform, a London-based think tank. “They all face considerable hurdles to meet the Copenhagen criteria, which set the EU’s standards for strong democratic institutions, a functioning market economy and the ability to meet the obligations of membership.”

Discussions at Tuesday’s meeting in the Albanian capital Tirana are also expected to focus on the negative effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine on energy and food security. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has already announced financial support to help Western Balkan countries cope with shortages and rising prices.

“We have created an energy support program that should mobilize at least 2.5 billion euros for the region,” Várhelyi said.

A bitter argument between Serbia and Kosovo, a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008, remains a big concern for Western powers as the summit approaches. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic had threatened to boycott the rally to protest a recent political appointment by Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti.

Vucic changed his mind on Monday, saying he and his associates agreed that it would be better for him to be there to defend Serbia’s interests. He said he expected to face “pressure” to recognize Kosovo and impose sanctions against Russia, but would explain Serbia’s positions in several meetings with EU leaders in Tirana .

During his visit to Belgrade, Várhelyi made it clear to Vucic that Serbia needed to align its foreign policy with that of the EU if the country hoped to join the bloc at some point. Vucic says he wants to integrate Serbia into the European Union, but he has cultivated ties with Russia.

Although Serbia’s representatives voted in favor of various UN resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vucic refused to explicitly condemn Moscow. His country did not adhere to Western sanctions against Russia because of the war.

“Further progress on the rule of law is essential, but it will not be enough,” Várhelyi said. “Alignment with EU foreign policy also plays a much more important role than before. Because Europe is also under attack.”

He said leaders meeting in Tirana also planned to discuss the recent increase in the number of migrants and asylum seekers moving without entry permits through the Western Balkans, with most hoping to eventually reach the EU.

After Croatia’s admission to the EU in 2013, the enlargement process slowed down as skeptical voices were raised in founding member countries such as Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands. Down. The eurozone debt crisis a decade ago, mass migration to Europe in 2015 and Britain’s Brexit referendum in 2016 also contributed to political unease over the bloc’s enlargement.


Petrequin reported from Brussels; Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.


Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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