Western Balkans leaders on Tuesday (6 December) welcomed the EU’s new mentality aimed at strengthening ties with the region, a dynamic reinvigorated by Russia’s war in Ukraine and a series of agreements including a reduction in transport costs. homelessness and integration into the bloc’s higher education systems.
“Things are changing,” said Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and host of the EU-Western Balkans summit, alongside European Council President Charles Michel and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
The EU would show “for the first time” a serious interest in the region for geopolitical, strategic and economic reasons, Rama added.
This is a change in tone from the summit between the EU and its counterparts in Brussels in June, when regional leaders expressed their frustration about the lack of progress on their path to the block.
EU officials and diplomats said Russia’s war in Ukraine had underlined the importance for the bloc of bringing the Western Balkans together to stabilize the region and counter Russia’s influence there. China.
Hosted for the first time in a third country and in the region, Rama told EURACTIV, “The top can do a lot of good things. But in the end, none of this will be as big as the Tirana summit.”
Held for the first time in the region, the meeting itself was the message of the EU-Western Balkans summit.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the changing current geopolitical landscape have led to the realization that the EU’s strategic interest in a stable and secure environment in its immediate neighborhood must go beyond the question of who will be the next member.
“Times are changing, in the sense that Europe can also offer things but not always demand them, and sometimes offers better work than what is asked for,” Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi told EURACTIV in October, explaining that for the EU, enlargement is no longer a “one-off affair”. -street lane’.
“The future of our children will be secure and more prosperous with the Western Balkans within the EU, and we are working very hard to make progress,” Michel told reporters in Tirana.
Michel recalled a “feeling of mutual frustration, fatigue” between Brussels and the Western Balkans but stressed that a “leap forward” was possible.
The summit aimed to assess the prospects of the six Western Balkan states – Albania, Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Serbia – joining the EU and to examine the areas in which they can cooperate.
In a municipality statement Published after the summit, the bloc reconfirmed its “total and unequivocal commitment to the prospect of Western Balkans joining the European Union”.
But this had to be based on “credible reforms on the part of partners; fair and rigorous conditionality,” said the joint statement.
“We also expect the region to implement key reforms and certainly demonstrate the willingness to embrace the European ambition and spirit. Many are doing it, but we also see hesitation,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told a group of journalists, including EURACTIV, on the sidelines of the summit.
The summit declaration also said potential members must align with the EU’s sanctions policy, but did not mention Serbia’s refusal to adopt restrictive measures against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.
Their attempts to join the EU “have gained momentum again”, von der Leyen told reporters in Tirana, while urging the six Balkan countries to “choose sides”.
“We (the EU) are the biggest investor. We are the closest partner, and that is why the discussion is also about which side you are on, the side of democracy,” von der Leyen stressed, adding that “Russia is trying to exert influence (in the Western Balkans). ). China is trying to influence.”
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Tuesday he had detected a new, more positive mood among EU members over the prospect of Western Balkan countries joining the bloc compared to a few years ago.
“I am very sure that a new inclusive movement has emerged and that the skepticism expressed a few years ago by several member states has now transformed into a desire to actively advance this project,” Scholz told journalists .
Stuck in the waiting room
But the Western Balkan countries have been stuck in the EU waiting room for years.
The decision on candidate status requires unanimity, but not all EU member states agree that this is a timely step to take.
Beyond the EU’s financial commitments to the region, which amount to a €30 billion economic and investment plan focused on infrastructure projects, the bloc has so far faced increasingly disillusioned potential members.
They have regularly expressed frustration with the long and demanding accession process, particularly since the EU moved so quickly this year to accept Ukraine and Moldova as official candidates.
However, Tuesday’s meeting appears to have reassured at least some of them that joining the bloc is not that far away.
In July, Brussels finally began accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, which applied in 2005 and 2014 respectively.
Negotiations have been underway for several years with Montenegro and Serbia, with the latter facing significant alignment issues with the bloc’s foreign and security policy, while in October Brussels recommended making Bosnia and Herzegovina an official candidate for the EU.
Michel, responding to a question from journalists in Tirana, said that “a good signal will be given” in the coming days regarding granting candidate status to the Western Balkan state.
European affairs ministers are expected to discuss the issue at their regular meeting on December 13, after the European Commission recommended in October granting candidate country status to Sarajevo on condition that certain measures are taken, such as EURACTIV reported before the decision was made.
Kosovo, the potential sixth member, faces challenges on its path to EU membership, with currently five EU member countries – Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain – which oppose its membership in the bloc.
Nevertheless, Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani declared upon his arrival that Pristina would apply for EU membership by the end of the year, pledging to participate in Brussels-facilitated negotiations with the Serbia to resolve outstanding disputes.
Borrell said the EU submitted a new proposal to Belgrade and Pristina on Monday to try to normalize their relations.
Some concrete deliverables
The EU has confirmed a grant package worth around €1 billion to help the Western Balkans deal with the energy crisis triggered by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The grants are expected to help attract public and private investment and raise at least €2.5 billion in total.
The bloc also signed an agreement with the region’s telecommunications operators to reduce roaming charges between the bloc and Balkan states in 2023 and phase them out by 2027.
Roaming charges between the six Western Balkan countries were abolished in 2021 as part of the Berlin Process.
In addition, the EU said it would also examine ways to cooperate on security issues, including preventing cyberattacks that have hit the Western Balkans.
“Hybrid threats have become a serious threat to the region,” Borrell told reporters.
He added that the bloc would commit to “building resilience”, which was achieved by launching a rapid response intervention with experts deployed on the ground to help countries combat these threats.
At the same time, illegal immigration remains a major concern for the EU.
The “Western Balkans route” is one of the main entry points used by large numbers of asylum seekers, many from conflict zones, trying to reach Western Europe.
According to the last Frontex dataMore than 128,000 illegal border crossings into the EU via the Western Balkans were recorded in the first 10 months of the year, with the agency saying the route remains “the most active entry point” into the block.
This represents an increase of 168% compared to the same period in 2021.
The rise prompted the Commission on Monday to propose sending the European border force Frontex to help control the Balkan borders.
The EU, for its part, has called on Western Balkan countries to align their visa policies with its own.
Serbia has been accused of contributing to the increase in the number of Cuban, Burundian, Indian and Tunisian migrants entering the EU.
Under pressure from the EU, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic announced the end of visa exemptions for Tunisians and Burundians.
(Edited by Alice Taylor)