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EU and Western Balkans strengthen partnership amid Ukraine war

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TIRANA, Albania (AP) — For the six Western Balkan countries Aspiring to join the European Union, becoming a full member of the 27-nation club remains a distant goal.

But Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia are receiving more concrete signs that they have a future place in the EU as Russia’s war in Ukraine threatens to reshape the geopolitical balance in south-eastern Europe.

EU and Western Balkans leaders worked to strengthen their partnership at a summit on Tuesday in Tirana, the capital of Albaniawhere they discussed topics such as migration, cybersecurity and diplomatic relations.

The EU “reaffirmed its full and unequivocal commitment to the prospect of Western Balkans joining the European Union” and called for the acceleration of accession negotiations with accession candidates.

As proof of the bloc’s commitment, European Council President Charles Michel highlighted EU energy support for the region as the war impacts supplies and prices.

“I am absolutely convinced that the future of our children will be secure and more prosperous with the Western Balkans within the EU,” said Michel, who jointly chaired the summit with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama.

Rama thanked Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for their support and perceived determination to ensure that accession negotiations with the Western Balkans do not “die in agony”.

The EU last admitted a new member – Croatia, also part of the Balkans – in 2013. The path to membership is a long process, as countries must meet a series of detailed economic and political conditions ,

Since Russia attacked Ukraine in late February, EU officials have reiterated that strengthening the bloc’s engagement with the six nations is more crucial than ever to keep Europe secure.

But the tensions also went up in the Balkansand the EU wants to avoid further hotbeds of tensions close to its borders in a region torn by conflict following the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

“War sends shock waves. This affects everyone, and especially this region,” said the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell.

In return for progress in accession negotiations, the EU expects full solidarity from its Western Balkan partners and wants them to be fully aligned with the bloc’s foreign policy.

This particular point has posed obstacles for Serbia, whose President Aleksandar Vucic says he wants to integrate Serbia into the European Union, but 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.

“It’s a two-way street,” Borrell said. “And we also expect the region to implement key reforms and certainly show its willingness to adhere to the ambition and spirit of the European Union. Many do, but we also see hesitation.

Von der Leyen also warned against China’s growing influence in the Western Balkans.

“We see very clearly that the war in Ukraine is not only a cruel war of Russia against Ukraine, but also a question of whether autocracies and the rule of might prevail. Or whether democracy and the rule of law will prevail,” von der Leyen said. “And this struggle is also visible in the Western Balkans. Russia is trying to exert its influence, China is trying to exert its influence.”

The EU remains the Western Balkans’ largest trading partner, accounting for more than two-thirds of the region’s total trade, according to the bloc’s data.

“We are the closest partner and that is why the discussion is also about deciding which side you are on,” von der Leyen said.

Although their progress towards EU membership has stalled in recent years, most countries have recently taken steps towards membership.

This summer, the EU began accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia after years of delays. Bosnia moved a step closer when the European Commission advised member countries in October to grant it candidate status, despite persistent criticism of the way the nation is run.

Kosovo has only taken the first step and said it will apply for candidate status later this month.

“We need the EU to put words into action,” said Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani.

To help households and businesses overcome the effects of the war in Ukraine on energy and food security, the EU has set aside 1 billion euros in grants for the Western Balkans, in the hope that the money will encourage doubling of investments.

Michel highlighted an agreement that will reduce mobile phone roaming charges between the Western Balkans and EU countries from October 2023, with a view to wiping them out completely later.

The leaders also discussed immigration, which remains a major concern for the EU given the number of migrants attempting to enter the bloc without permission through the Western Balkans, including through Serbia.

The European border agency, Frontex, said it detected more than 22,300 entry attempts from the Balkan migration route in October, almost three times more than a year ago. Around 500 Frontex officers work along the EU’s borders with Balkan countries, and the agency plans to post staff within the region itself soon.

Serbia has so far not aligned its visa policy with that of the bloc and allows visitors from several countries to enter without a visa. Some from Burundi, Tunisia, India, Cuba and Turkey thus enter the EU.


Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this story.

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