The leaders of the European Union and the countries of the Western Balkans met on Tuesday in the Albanian capital of Tirana for a summit designed to reassure the region about its future in the European Union amid concerns about the growing influence of Russia and China.
This is reported by Reuters.
The leaders of the six Balkan countries – Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – have long expressed frustration that talks have not started or stalled years after they were promised EU membership.
While there is widespread reluctance among EU member states to pursue further enlargement, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted them to focus more energy on bringing the region closer to the bloc.
“I am absolutely convinced that the future of our children will be safer and more prosperous if the Western Balkans are part of the EU, and we are working very hard to make progress,” EU Council President Charles Michel said at the beginning of the meeting.
In a concrete step towards integration, telecom operators from the EU and six Western Balkan leaders signed an agreement on Tuesday morning, at the start of the summit, to reduce data roaming charges from October 2023.
While some Balkan leaders welcomed the move, they also stressed that they wanted more.
“Kosovo will submit its application for EU membership by the end of this year,” President Vjosa Osmani-Sadriu said upon arriving at the summit, stressing that she hoped next week’s EU summit would approve visa liberalization for Kosovo.
Old tensions in the region were also evident as she criticized Serbia’s position and said Kosovo “100% shares” the EU’s views.
Meanwhile, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, arriving at the summit, said: “Serbia is too close to Russia? Serbia is an independent country.”
According to him, Serbia is “on the way to the EU and will continue to be so”, but it also needs to defend its own interests.
The EU aims to bring more stability to the region, which emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia and the ethnic wars of the 1990s, but is still plagued by tensions.
But the move toward closer integration is also designed to deny Moscow the ability to create problems in what is seen as a vulnerable spot on the southeastern flank of the 27-nation EU.
In particular, Serbia, which was bombed by NATO two decades ago, has long been trying to balance its historically close ties with Russia and its desire for economic and political integration with the West.
EU leaders will also push for their Balkan counterparts to be more assertive in implementing EU standards such as the rule of law, gender equality, protection of minorities and the fight agai nst corruption and organized crime, while aligning them with EU policies such as sanctions against Russia.
At the same time, the EU is working hard to close what it believes are loopholes in the visa regimes of several Balkan countries, which have contributed to the increase in the number of migrants crossing the bloc’s borders