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EU chief says investment plan for Western Balkans candidate countries will require reforms

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SKOPJE, North Macedonia — The European Commission’s top official said Monday that a decade-long investment program for Western Balkan countries seeking to join the bloc could significantly improve the region’s economy, but that it is conditional on the necessary reforms.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen discussed details of the 6 billion euro ($6.37 billion) package during a visit to Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, at the start of a four-day trip to the region. EU leaders presented the package during a meeting on the Western Balkans in Albania earlier this month.

At a news conference Monday with North Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski, von der Leyen said the EU package had the potential to double North Macedonia’s economy within a decade. “This is the goal, and it will play an important role in your journey to the EU,” she said.

She said the plan would allow Western Balkan companies to access key sectors of the bloc’s single market, while at the same time countries in the region should open their own markets to their neighbors.

“If realized, the common regional market could increase (gross domestic product) by 10% in the Western Balkans,” she said.

Von der Leyen also stressed the need for the Western Balkans to pursue “positive reforms.”

She said North Macedonia should benefit from an efficient public administration, healthy public finances and an independent judiciary. It must also fight corruption better, she added.

Later on Monday, the head of the European Commission visited Kosovo and stressed that the bitter dispute between Serbia and Kosovo, a former Serbian province which declared independence in 2008, remains a major concern for the EU. Serbia refused to recognize the independence of Kosovo.

“We will only be able to achieve all this progress and success if Kosovo and Serbia normalize their relations,” she said at a press conference after her meeting with Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani.

An EU-facilitated dialogue to normalize relations has failed to move in the right direction, particularly following a recent shootout between masked Serbian gunmen and Kosovo police that left four people dead and increased tensions in the region.

Von der Leyen urged Kosovo to fulfill its commitment to create an association to coordinate work on education, health care, land use planning and economic development in northern Kosovo’s communities, largely populated by Ethnic Serbs.

She will also visit Serbia, where she said one of the main topics of discussion would be that Serbia should “keep its commitments” on recognizing Kosovo.

Both countries have said they want to join the 27-nation bloc.

She will also stop in Montenegro and Bosnia.

Six Western Balkan countries are at different stages on the path to EU membershipin a process expected to take years.

While Montenegro and Serbia are making progress, North Macedonia and Albania began accession negotiations with the EU in July 2022. Bosnia was granted candidate status five months later, while Kosovo been recognized as a potential candidate to join the bloc.

Osmani called on the EU to grant Kosovo candidate status at its December summit.

Llazar Semini contributed from Tirana, Albania.

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