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EU calls for reforms and single market in Western Balkans to boost membership applications

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Berlin Process, leaders' summit in Tirana

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen attends a news conference at the Berlin Process leaders’ summit in Tirana, Albania October 16, 2023. REUTERS/Florion Goga Acquire license rights

TIRANA, Oct 16 (Reuters) – The European Union wants to bring six Western Balkan countries closer to membership in the bloc, but wants them to first implement reforms and create their own single market, the EU said on Monday. President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

Having received the promise of EU membership years ago, the accession process throughout the region including Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia slowed to a crawlmainly due to the reluctance of the 27 members of the bloc and the lack of reforms in the region.

Von der Leyen, attending a Berlin Process summit in Tirana – a German initiative to improve cooperation in the Western Balkans, said the EU and the region must now bring their economies closer together.

“We really need to exploit the potential… of the Western Balkans and bring it closer to the European single market,” she said at a press conference in the Albanian capital.

Leaders from across the region joined von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama at the summit.

Von der Leyen said the new growth plan, which would include opening the EU common market to the Western Balkans in areas such as free movement of goods and services, transport, energy and market single digital system, would also require in-depth reforms.

“These reforms will be accompanied by investment funding from the EU, if they take place,” she said.

According to the European Commission, a 30 billion euro economic and investment plan for the region proposed by the EU in 2020 has so far triggered investments worth 16 billion euros.

Von der Leyen said that if Western Balkan countries created their own common market, it would boost their economies by 10% in total.

Scholtz said the Berlin process was “the best instrument” to accelerate the integration of Western Balkan countries.

“Any progress you make in the common regional market will bring you significantly closer to European standards,” he said.

Last year, Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia signed mobility agreements allowing people to travel and work in the three countries with just their ID cards. On Monday, the six countries agreed to continue mutual recognition of professional qualifications.

Serbia and Montenegro were the first in the region to launch EU accession talks, and Albania and North Macedonia subsequently began negotiations with Brussels last year. Bosnia and Kosovo, however, remain far behind their neighbors in this process.

($1 = 0.9482 euros)

Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke; Editing by Hugh Lawson

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