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EU-Western Balkans summit: Accession ‘is a two-way street’

  • December 06, 2022

European leaders pledged to strengthen partnerships with aspiring bloc members at the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Tirana, Albania, on Tuesday.

Beyond EU accession, politicians discussed topics such as immigration, security, cybersecurity and diplomatic ties.

“The EU reconfirms its full and unequivocal commitment to the European Union membership perspective of the Western Balkans and calls for the acceleration of the accession process, based upon credible reforms by partners, fair and rigorous conditionality and the principle of own merits,” read the EU’s so-called Tirana declaration issued Tuesday.

Despite slow progress, most countries currently in line to join the bloc have made some advances. Still, they voiced serious concern again this June, when the EU reversed longstanding policy by fast-tracking Ukraine and Moldova for membership.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he sensed a new mood regarding Western Balkan EU membership.

“I am quite sure that a new inclusive movement has arisen and that the skepticism that was formulated a few years ago by several member states has now mutated into a willingness to actively push this forward,” Scholz said.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks to reporters at an EU-Western Balkans Summit press conference
German Chancellor Scholz said he sensed a new mood regarding Western Balkan EU membershipImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

Ukraine war gives new urgency to EU membership bids

The question of accession for Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia has been on the table for years but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given new urgency to the extremely slow process.

“I am absolutely convinced that the future of our children will be safe and more prosperous with the Western Balkans within the EU,” said European Council President Charles Michel, who chaired the summit alongside Albanian President Edi Rama.

Rama in turn thanked Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for not letting Western Balkans accession “die in agony.”

Concern over the geopolitical balance of the region as a result of the war in Ukraine was palpable in Tirana. 

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

New movement in the EU accession process: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen

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But Borrell also made it clear that the road to accession, “is a two-way street” and said key reforms were needed. The diplomat added that the bloc has noted “hesitations” from some Western Balkan states.

Most notable among those hesitating, Serbia — in membership negotiations since 2014 — whose president, Aleksandar Vucic, has flaunted his ties with Moscow despite claiming the desire to join the EU.

Beyond refusing to condemn Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, Vucic has also refused to join Western sanctions on Russia.  

EU: ‘Decide which side you are on’

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen referred to the struggle for influence in the region and with that the need to clearly choose sides.

“We notice very clearly that the Ukraine war is not only Russia’s cruel war against Ukraine, but also a question of whether autocracies and the law of the strongest will prevail, or whether democracy and the rule of law will prevail,” she said.

“And this struggle is also noticeable in the Western Balkans. Russia is trying to exert influence, China is trying to exert influence.”

But von der Leyen was quick to remind Western Balkans leaders who their true partner should be: “We are the closest partner and that is why the discussion is also about you having to decide which side you are on.”

More than two-thirds of trade in the region is with the EU.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (l) walking away from Albanian President Edi Rama at the EU-Western Balkans Summit, in Tirana, Albania
Which way is he going? Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has confounded EU leaders with his behaviorImage: Andreea Alexandru/AP Photo/picture alliance

Immigration key sticking point

Another issue that has taken on great relevance for the relationship between countries in the region and the EU is immigration.

Here, too, Serbia is causing headaches for Brussels. Although the EU expects potential members to align their foreign policy with the bloc, President Vucic has refused to do so.

Rather than adopting EU visa policies, Belgrad has been allowing foreign nationals from Burundi, Cuba, India and Tunisia to enter without visas and then move on to the EU over land.

In its final communique, the EU underscored the “urgent and crucial importance” of “partners’ swift alignment with EU visa policy.”

The EU on Tuesday, also clearly signaled its willingness to pitch in when it comes to deportations from the region.

In its final declaration the EU wrote, “migration management remains a joint challenge and responsibility.”

EU and Western Balkans leaders pose for a so-called family photo at the outset of the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Tirana, Albania
One big happy family? Despite the endless process and myriad sticking points, leaders remain upbeat eventual membershipImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

EU pledges €1 billion to offset war costs

A number of other issues such as regional cooperation and good neighborly relations — often difficult in a region known for tensions and conflict — were discussed; as were strengthening security, cybersecurity and counterterrorism cooperation.

The EU encouraged partners in the Western Balkans to vigorously combat corruption, money laundering, drug cultivation and trafficking, and the illicit small arms trade — suggesting partners reach out for EU legal assistance in criminal matters.

As a sign of solidarity, Brussels announced Tuesday that it had earmarked €1 billion ($1.05 billion) in grants to Western Balkan states in hopes that these would attract further funds that can then be put to offsetting high energy costs and food insecurity as a result of the war in Ukraine.

Another agreement reached at the summit lowered cellular telephone roaming charges between the EU and Western Balkans. The change will go into effect in October 2023, with rates to ultimately be phased out entirely.

Whether you stand with Ukraine or with Russia should matter: Vjosa Osmani, Kosovo President

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Glacial accession process

Of those countries attending Tuesday’s summit: Montenegro and Serbia began accession negotiations in 2012 and 2014 respectively; Albania and North Macedonia were each given candidate status this summer.

Bosnia-Herzegovina — despite serious concerns about the way the country is currently being run — was recommended for candidate status in October; and Kosovo, seen as a potential accession candidate, has said it will apply to join the 27-member bloc.

The last county to join the EU was Croatia — also a Balkan country — in 2013.

js/rs (AFP, AP, Reuters)

Passing through Serbia in the hope of making it into the EU

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