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EU leaders travel to Balkans in bid to reassure the region on accession

European Union and Western Balkans leaders met in the Albanian capital Tirana on Tuesday for the EU-Western Balkans summit, intending to reassure the region of a future in the wealthy bloc amid fears of rising Russian and Chinese influence.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Tuesday he noticed a new, more positive mood among European Union members with the prospect of Western Balkans countries joining the bloc when compared to a few years back, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

At the end of the summit, EU leaders reaffirmed their “full and unequivocal commitment to the EU membership perspective of the Western Balkans and call for the acceleration of the accession process”, in a joint declaration.

While reluctance over further enlarging the EU is rife among member states, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led them to devote more energy into enhancing ties.

Faith in the EU

In turn, the leaders of the six Balkan countries of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia have long expressed disillusion that negotiations have not started or are stalled, years after they were promised eventual EU membership.

A historic #EUWBSummit in Tirana highlighting our partnership with the Western Balkan countries.

We will move forward with ambitious plan to support the region’s reforms and accelerate their accession to the EU. 1/ pic.twitter.com/8axIp5mvDO

— Kaja Kallas (@kajakallas) December 6, 2022

“We had our frustrations … but we never gave up on this faith in the EU,” Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, the summit host said.

“The progress made in the last years, no doubt also because of the war (in Ukraine) as an accelerator, is immense,” the PM added.

In turn, Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani announced that her country would submit an application for membership of the European Union by the end of the year, pledging commitment to Brussels-sponsored talks with Serbia to resolve outstanding differences.

Part two of my press statement at the start of the #EUWBSummit in Tirana. 2/2 pic.twitter.com/LhQdFzREDE

— Vjosa Osmani (@VjosaOsmaniPRKS) December 6, 2022

Balkans a place of geopolitical conflict

“Ever since the Russian aggression started in Ukraine, the Western Balkans, which had been forgotten by Europe, has become recognised as the place where the geopolitical conflict is expanding,” Slovenia’s Prime Minister Robert Golob told reporters.

“The region’s integration is important for the stability of Europe in all aspects,” he added.

However, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo hinted that the path to accession will still be long for the region.

“We know that there is progress, we know that there is an ambition to make this progress work faster … but there is no shortcut,” he said.

Summit results

On the sidelines, the EU drafted a new proposal for the normalisation of ties between Serbia and Kosovo, its former rebellious province, with a clear timeline of actions, a senior EU diplomat said.

In moves towards integration, telecom operators within the EU agreed to cut data roaming charges in the Western Balkans from October 2023, and Brussels pledged EUR 1 billion in grants for energy.

An important step in lowering data roaming charges between the EU and the Western Balkans.

At the #EUWBSummit, telecom operators agree to lower data roaming charges between both regions, starting next year.

This is good for businesses, and for bringing people closer together. pic.twitter.com/TrxJJeHzoC

— European Commission ?? (@EU_Commission) December 6, 2022

Moreover, a senior EU diplomat said Bosnia “may” get EU candidacy status at the December 15-16 EU summit.

Today leaders from the ??#EU & the #WesternBalkans met in #Tirana for the #EUWBSummit.

Read the full text of the Tirana declaration of the #EU-Western Balkans summit?https://t.co/kw9XLW0opy pic.twitter.com/ykOYMIXGzv

— EU NEAR?? (@eu_near) December 6, 2022

Stance on Russia an important factor

The EU’s aim is to give greater stability to a region that emerged from the break-up of Yugoslavia and the ethnic wars of the 1990s but is still racked by tensions. But the bloc also wants to deny Moscow a gateway for causing trouble at what is seen as a soft spot on its southeastern flank.

With a war raging on our continent, it’s more important than ever for the countries of the EU and the Western Balkans to act in concert, whether in terms of supporting ?? and enforcing sanctions against ??, or in other vital, urgent areas, like energy and migration. #EUWBSummit pic.twitter.com/9mEEYSfulO

— Mark Rutte (@MinPres) December 6, 2022

Serbia in particular, which was bombed by NATO two decades ago, has long struggled to balance historically close ties with Russia against aspirations for integration with the West.

“The Western Balkans have decided to embark on the European path. This is a two-way street, and we also expect the region to deliver on key reforms and certainly to show the will to embrace European ambition and the spirit. Many do. But we see also hesitations,” High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell said.

In face of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, we need more than ever to stand together in defending democracy and international law.

Today‘s #EUWBSummit is another proof that the EU & the Western Balkans are able to face enormous challenges together.https://t.co/t9FyJu8eqF pic.twitter.com/oqFGWxhrXt

— Josep Borrell Fontelles (@JosepBorrellF) December 6, 2022

EU leaders also pressured their Balkans counterparts to be more forceful in implementing EU standards such as the rule of law, while aligning with EU policies including on immigration. The EU says loose visa regimes of several Balkans countries have helped boost the number of migrants crossing into the bloc.

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