BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders on Wednesday insisted that six countries of the Western Balkans have a future in the bloc’s midst and offered them fresh financial aid as they struggle to cope with the impact of the coronavirus on their economies.
With Russia and China vying for influence in the volatile region, the EU leaders emphasized the “European perspective” of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia. But no discussion was held on when any of them might advance with their membership quest.
Long delays over the start of EU membership talks for Albania and North Macedonia, tensions between Serbia and its former territory of Kosovo, and a perception that the EU was slow to help its Balkan partners cope with the virus have fueled concern that the six might turn toward Russia and China.
“The Western Balkans belongs in the EU and there is no question for us about it,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said after the summit, adding that the bloc “has a special responsibility in assisting its partners in the region. This is particularly true regarding the impact of the coronavirus.”
During the roughly two-hour video-conference, the Europeans focused in on the 3.3 billion euros ($3.6 billion) in emergency coronavirus funding that it recently granted the six as they look to burnish their credentials as far more worthy partners to the region than Russia.
The money is aimed at supporting overburdened health services, ensuring the delivery of supplies like protective equipment, masks and ventilators, and at bolstering Western Balkan economies and to speed up recovery efforts. Emergency aid is also available for vulnerable refugees and migrants in the region.
But the leaders signaled that more is to come. “Once we put behind us this immediate phase of the coronavirus crisis, the European Union will accompany the longer-term recovery with an economic and investment plan,” von der Leyen said.
That package, to be presented later this year, will focus on transport and energy infrastructure but also EU policy priorities like fighting climate change and the shift to the computer-based economy. She gave no indication of how big it might be.
In return, the Europeans sought assurances that the six are indeed oriented toward the 27-country bloc and that they stand ready to carry out the political, democratic and economic reforms required to make progress toward membership.
“Increased EU assistance will be linked to tangible progress in the rule of law and in socio-economic reforms, as well as on the Western Balkans partners’ adherence to EU values, rules and standards,” said a joint summit communique.
In an implicit message to any other suitors, their text underlined that European “support and cooperation goes far beyond what any other partner has provided to the region (which) deserves public acknowledgement.”
Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, who organized the meeting as his country — itself a Balkan hopeful before it joined the bloc in 2013 — currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, said “there is a lot of appreciation in all the capitals of the region for what the European Union is doing.”
“These countries are in a way surrounded by the European Union. If you look at geography, there is nowhere else they can go,” Plenkovic told reporters.
The countries of the region are at different stages of European integration. Serbia and Montenegro are holding pre-membership negotiations while Albania and North Macedonia have been given the green light to launch them, although still without an exact start date. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo have started only the first step in the process.
Ahead of the summit, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama told The Associated Press: “I strongly believe that we are in a better place today in our relations with the European Union.”
Albania and North Macedonia were meant to begin accession talks last year, but French President Emmanuel Macron blocked the move, forcing the EU commission to revise the negotiating process for both countries to break the deadlock. A date for the talks to start had been expected at this summit, until the coronavirus hit.
But Rama remains upbeat despite the fresh delay.
“We’re preparing all the setup for the negotiations and the date will come,” he said.
Llazar Semini reported from Tirana, Albania. Konstantin Testorides in Skopje, North Macedonia, and Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade contributed to this report.
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