EU, Western Balkans strengthen partnership amid war in Ukraine | Popgen Tech


TIRANA, Albania (AP) – For the six Western Balkan countries aspiration to join the European Union, gaining full membership in the 27-nation club remains a distant goal.

But Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia are getting more concrete signs that they have a future place in the EU as Russia’s war in Ukraine threatens to reshape the geopolitical balance in Southeast Europe.

EU and Western Balkan leaders worked to strengthen their partnership at a summit on Tuesday in Albania’s capital, Tiranawhere they covered topics including migration, cyber security and diplomatic ties.

The EU “reaffirmed its full and unequivocal commitment to the European Union membership perspective of the Western Balkans” and called for the acceleration of accession talks with the membership hopefuls.

As evidence of the bloc’s commitment, European Council President Charles Michel underlined the EU’s energy support to the region as the war affects supplies and prices.

“I am absolutely convinced that the future of our children will be safe and more prosperous with the Western Balkans within the EU,” said Michel, who co-chaired the summit with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama..

Rama thanked Michel and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for their support and perceived determination to ensure that membership talks with the Western Balkans do not “die in agony.”

The EU last admitted a new member – Croatia, which is also part of the Balkans – in 2013. The path to membership is a long process, as countries must meet a detailed set of economic and political conditions,

Since Russia attacked Ukraine in late February, EU officials have reiterated that strengthening the bloc’s engagement with the six nations was more important than ever to maintain Europe’s security.

But tensions also increased in the Balkansand the EU wants to avoid other flashpoints near its borders in a region torn by conflicts after the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

“The war sends shock waves. It affects everyone, and especially this region,” said the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell.

In return for progress in the accession negotiations, the EU expects full solidarity from its partners in the Western Balkans and wants them to be fully aligned with the bloc’s foreign policy.

That particular point poses obstacles for Serbia, whose president Aleksandar Vucic claims he wants to take Serbia into the European Union, but has cultivated ties with Russia.

Although Serbia’s representatives voted in favor of several UN resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vucic refused to explicitly condemn Moscow. His country did not join Western sanctions against Russia over the war.

“It’s a two-way street,” Borrell said. “And we also expect the region to deliver key reforms, and certainly show the will to embrace the European Union’s ambition and spirit. Many do, but we also see hesitation.”

Von der Leyen also warned about China’s growing influence in the Western Balkans.

“We note very clearly that the Ukraine war is not only Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine, but also a question of whether autocracies and the right of the strongest will prevail. Whether democracy and the rule of law will prevail,” Von der Leyen said. “And this struggle is also noticeable in the Western Balkans. Russia is trying to exert influence, China is trying to exert influence.”

The EU remains the Western Balkans’ most important trading partner, accounting for more than two-thirds of the region’s total trade, according to the bloc’s data.

“We are the closest partner and therefore the conversation is also about you having to decide which side you are on,” von der Leyen said.

Although their progress towards EU membership has stalled in recent years, most of the nations have recently taken steps towards admission.

This summer, the EU began membership negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia after years of delays. Bosnia moved a little closer when the European Commission advised member states in October to grant it candidate status despite ongoing criticism of the way the nation is run.

Kosovo has only taken the first step, saying it will apply for candidate status later this month.

“We need the EU to move from words to deeds,” said President Vjosa Osmani of Kosovo.

To help households and businesses withstand the effects of the war in Ukraine on energy and food security, the EU has earmarked 1 billion euros in grants to the Western Balkans, hoping the money will double the investment.

Michel highlighted an agreement that will reduce mobile roaming charges between the Western Balkans and EU countries from October 2023, with a view to erasing them entirely at a later stage

Leaders also discussed immigration, which remains a major EU concern given the number of migrants trying to enter the bloc without authorization via the Western Balkans, particularly through Serbia.

EU border agency Frontex said it detected more than 22,300 attempts at entry from the Balkan migration route in October, almost three times as many as a year ago. Around 500 Frontex officers work along the EU’s borders with Balkan countries, and the agency plans to soon assign staff within the region itself.

Serbia has so far not aligned its visa policies with those of the bloc and allows visitors from several countries to enter without visas. Some of Burundi, Tunisia, India, Cuba and Turkey slip into the EU.


Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this story.


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