European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen pledged Monday to bring the economies of the Western Balkans and the European Union closer together, as she began a four-day tour of the region.
Speaking in the capitals of North Macedonia and Kosovo, von der Leyen pledged to double the economies of both countries over the next decade as part of the country’s 6 billion euro growth plan. EU for the Western Balkans, seen as a stepping stone towards EU membership.
But the path to EU membership can only open if political reforms are implemented in both countries, according to von der Leyen.
In Pristina, she said success depended on the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, which have become extremely tense since a Kosovar policeman was killed by armed paramilitary troops trained at Serbian military bases in late September.
The EU growth plan will give Western Balkan companies access to the EU single market in seven sectors in exchange for key reforms, including ensuring sound public administration and finances, independence of the judiciary and the repression of corruption. The Commission will publish on November 8 an assessment of the progress made by countries in implementing the reforms.
The EU will also pump money into strategic investments to encourage such reforms and bring the economies of the two blocs closer together. The Western Balkans region could thus see its GDP increase by 10%, von der Leyen said on Monday.
“Kosovo’s economy represents 27% of the EU’s average income, so there is a lot of untapped potential,” von der Leyen said at a joint news conference in Pristina with President Vjosa Osmani.
“We should try to double your economy within ten years,” she added, making the same commitment earlier in Skopje to North Macedonian Prime Minister Dimitar Kovačevski. North Macedonia’s economy accounts for 42% of the EU average income.
But von der Leyen stressed to Osmani and Kovačevski that political reforms must be implemented for funds to be disbursed under the growth plan and for the EU accession process to move forward.
“Success” depends on reforms
In Kosovo, von der Leyen issued a warning that relations between Belgrade and Pristina must be normalized before Pristina can benefit from the growth plan or progress on the path to EU membership.
“We all have our story,” von der Leyen said. “The history of enlargement is a history of countries emerging from the Second World War. It is a history of peace, reconciliation and normalization of relations, and it is therefore a prerequisite for membership of the ‘European Union.”
“We all know that we can only achieve all this progress and success if Kosovo and Serbia normalize their relations. It is absolutely crucial that both engage and cooperate,” she added. “And we discussed together the possibility of Kosovo launching the procedure to create the Association of Municipalities with a Serbian Majority.”
EU leaders – including the French president, German chancellor and Italian prime minister – failed to reach an agreement during talks last week over growing tensions between Belgrade and Pristina.
The bloc wants Kosovo to establish a so-called association of Serbian-majority municipalities in the north of the country and for Serbia to “de facto recognize” Kosovo, which it continues to consider its province despite the country’s declaration of independence. Kosovo in 2008.
Von der Leyen will meet Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić in Belgrade on Tuesday.
Skopje, meanwhile, has already taken steps to amend its constitution to recognize the Bulgarian minority living on its territory and review its relations with Sofia annually, as part of a French-brokered deal to lift the veto of Bulgaria at the opening of EU accession negotiations.
But these changes are blocked by the main conservative opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE.
“The first steps have been taken in your parliament – and this is good news,” von der Leyen said in reference to North Macedonia’s constitutional reform. “Now I hope that all parties will seize this opportunity to move forward. Because there is now real momentum, across the European Union and in the countries that want to join the European Union, for of the enlargement process.”
This article has been edited because it incorrectly stated that the EU’s growth plan for the Western Balkans was worth €60 billion, instead of €6 billion.