TIRANA, Albania (AP) — European Union leaders proposed a new growth plan for the Western Balkans at a summit in the Albanian capital Monday, opening parts of the EU’s single market and demanding reforms in depth before adhesion to the block. for the six countries of the region.
The main topics of the annual negotiations – called the Berlin Process – are the integration of the Western Balkans into the single market and support for their green and digital transformation. The countries in the region are Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.
Senior EU officials at the Tirana summit included European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel. They were joined by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
French President Emmanuel Macron did not attend the summit due to the recent incident in which a teacher was fatally stabbed and three people injured in an attack at a school in northern France. He was represented by Secretary of State Laurence Boon.
Macron was due to begin an official visit to Tirana later on Monday.
The six Western Balkan countries are at different stages of integration into the bloc. Serbia and Montenegro were the first Western Balkan countries to launch accession negotiations a few years ago, followed by Albania and Macedonia last year, while Bosnia and Kosovo have only began the first stage of the integration process.
Scholtz said that “the Berlin process is the best instrument not only to unlock the full potential of regional cooperation, but also to accelerate the integration of all Western Balkan countries.”
Russia’s war in Ukraine has put the integration of the Western Balkans into the EU at the top of the agenda for the 27-nation bloc. The EU is trying to restart the entire enlargement process, which has been stalled since 2013, when Croatia became the last country to join.
The EU required the Western Balkans to reform their economy and political institutions before joining.
Von der Leyen spoke of a new growth plan for the Western Balkan countries: opening new trade routes in specific areas of the EU common market for the Balkan countries, such as the free movement of goods and services, road transport, energy, electricity and digital technology. walk. The six countries must implement rapid reforms which, in turn, will be accompanied by investments.
The EU has already mobilized 16 billion euros ($16.8 billion) to invest in the region, up from the 30 billion euros ($31.5 billion) promised three years ago.
“We really need to harness the potential of the Western Balkans and bring it closer to the European single market,” she said.
The six countries must undertake in-depth reforms to improve the business climate, make the regulatory environment more attractive and facilitate access to their respective markets, she added.
“If there are blockages, the only one you can block is yourself,” von der Leyen said.
A bitter conflict between Serbia and Kosovo, a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008, remains a big concern for the EU.
An EU-facilitated dialogue to normalize relations has stalled, following a recent shootout between masked Serbian gunmen and Kosovo police that left four dead and raised tensions in the region.
Scholtz called on Serbia and Kosovo to return to the negotiating table, stressing “the urgent need to work together and overcome antagonism.”
“It is time to overcome conflicts that have lasted far too long and are holding back only two countries,” he said.
EU officials have urged Balkan countries to overcome regional conflicts and stay united as Russia wages war in Ukraine.
“Any progress you make in the common regional market will bring you significantly closer to European standards,” Scholtz said.
Von der Leyen saw the new growth plan “as a very strong incentive… to open the doors economically, but also to demand the opening of borders between the Western Balkan countries and to implement the necessary reforms.” With this comes investment financing.
“Only by working together will we place the Western Balkans where they belong, at the heart of the European Union,” she said.
Michel urged Western Balkan countries to “keep their commitments, starting with the necessary reforms, and within the EU we must prepare to welcome new members.”
“I repeat, to achieve this, I think we must be ready on both sides for enlargement by 2030,” he said, adding: “It is an encouragement, a support to redouble our efforts. ‘efforts”.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama hailed the new plan as very promising because it supports “the idea of a decent relationship that functions more like partners sharing a home with better understanding and sharing of burdens.”
The summit, which is being held for the first time in a non-EU country, is taking place at a pharaonic monument, known as the Pyramid. It was built in 1988 as a posthumous museum for Albania’s communist-era strongman Enver Hoxha.
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