The EU does not want to miss a step in the Balkans. Faced with China’s economic strength and Russia’s movements to influence the region, the European Union is now trying to keep them anchored and show that the integration process of the six countries —many of which have spent years paving the way for their entry — is not paralyzed. The leaders of the Member States and Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia met this Tuesday in Tirana (Albania) for the first EU-Balkans summit to be held in the region (the previous ones had been on community). The appointment is also a way of symbolizing that this time it is the Union that is approaching the six States, in which some frustration has spread due to the slowness of the Union’s commitments. Especially for months, with the rapid designation of Ukraine as a candidate for the community club. The EU also seeks to align the Balkans – a geostrategic territory and also crucial due to the migratory routes that lead to the Member States – with the policy of European sanctions on Russia for its war in Ukraine. In some countries in the region, this punishment of Moscow is more lax or is not carried out directly, as in Serbia.
“I am absolutely convinced that the future of our children will be safer and more prosperous with the Western Balkans within the EU and we are working very hard to make progress,” said the President of the Council of the EU, Charles Michel, in a press conference after the meeting in Tirana attended by the leaders of 23 member states ―the Spanish president, Pedro Sánchez, did not attend; Neither have the Heads of State and Government of Poland, Latvia and Denmark―, and in which the “acceleration” of the enlargement process has been agreed, but where countries have also been called upon to assimilate their visa policies (some have bilateral pacts with third countries and allow their citizens to enter without a visa) to those of the EU, in an attempt to clog the migratory route from the Balkans, the most active right now towards the EU.
The Albanian capital, which has had an unofficial holiday this Tuesday, has been decked out for the summit, with the streets in the center and near the place where the event is held lined with Albanian and EU flags, in communion. Although not everything has been festive. During the summit, the Albanian opposition has called a demonstration against the Government in which the opponent Sali Berisha has been attacked. Meanwhile, in the congress palace where the leaders have met, the Albanian presidency has entertained its guests with traditional dances under the December sun and also with a group of dancers from street dance dressed in blue sweaters with yellow stars (like the EU flag) who have mixed rhythms from the region with hits like Pimp Daddy, under the gaze of the leaders and some timid attempts to keep up with the clapping. The Albanian Prime Minister, Edi Rama, has defined the summit as a “sign of awareness” that the EU and the Balkans need each other.
Albania and the other five countries in the region are also feeling the brunt of inflation and the energy crisis. To mitigate the impact of the problems with prices and the supply of gas and electricity, the EU has provided a package of 1,000 million euros for these States, in addition to other subsidies to support green energy. Among the measures, the European Commission has also proposed that the Balkans can participate in the joint platform for the purchase of gas and hydrogen from third countries, to try to get better prices and escape dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, which the Kremlin is using. as a weapon against the EU for its support for Ukraine.
The EU and the six countries of the Western Balkans have also signed several agreements that help to smooth their integration, such as student exchange pacts (the extension towards the Erasmus+ program area), common recognition of diplomas, as well as a plan for that he roaming European data base covers the region from October 2023. “Movements are taking place that really open doors for the region,” explains Majlinda Bregu, head of the Regional Cooperation Council, who points out that the fact that the summit EU-Balkans is held for the first time in a country that is not yet a member is tremendously symbolic. “It’s like making visible that the EU is going to the Balkans, the clear message is that the integration process is not dead,” says Bregu in an interview on the sidelines of the summit, in which she has also participated as head of one of key agencies in the region.
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The enlargement process has stalled in recent years. Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007 and since then only Croatia has done so in 2013. More recently, especially since the last summit on the Balkans in June, discontent among the leaders of the six countries has increased. Along the way, proposals have emerged such as the new European Political Community, made up of the EU countries with other partners, including those of the Western Balkans. At the same time, the debate on whether new additions are appropriate is growing, with voices claiming that, if they do occur, a reform of the decision-making mechanisms in the EU should be completed so that matters of foreign policy or taxation are decided by qualified majority, not unanimously. Or remove the right to veto, which has led to situations where a country is holding key agreements hostage. This is the case of Hungary, which has seen its cohesion funds frozen due to its violations of the rule of law and, in this context, maintains that it will veto the delivery of a package of 18,000 million in loans for Ukraine.
The summit has arrived, on the other hand, preceded by tensions between the Balkan partners themselves. The main ones occur between Serbia and Kosovo due to the Kosovar regulation that requires Kosovo Serb vehicles to carry Kosovo license plates on their cars, a conflict that was resolved with the mediation of the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell, but which continues to simmer in the region. In fact, the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vucic, who harshly charged the Kosovar political leadership with serious insults this weekend, had threatened not to attend the Tirana meeting, although he finally did. These are not the only frictions between countries in a region with a complex past and a war just a couple of decades ago, circumstances that are also paving the way for accession, Bregu acknowledges. However, this policy highlights that the surveys of the body that he directs show that 83% of the citizens of the region believe that greater economic cooperation between them would be a great boost.
The truth is that Russia’s war in Ukraine and the designation of Ukraine as a candidate have turned the tables for the region, say community sources, who stress that the Union is trying to solidify its relations with the six countries in a region in which China It has invested billions of euros, with projects such as the Belgrade-Budapest railway. Beijing is also keeping a tight grip on Montenegro, which is having serious difficulties repaying a $1 billion loan for a controversial highway project that has not yet been completed and has plunged Podgorica into a debt crisis.
Beijing is pulling its economic muscle, but Moscow is also trying to influence the region, where it has been present for decades and has important ties to some of its countries. Like Serbia, the largest country in the area and the closest to the Kremlin, which has not sided with EU sanctions on Russia, has carried out military exercises with Russian forces and enjoys cheap Russian gas supply agreements. These elements also hold him hostage in his international political movements, in which he balances to stay on the path of accession to the EU, to which he has been a candidate since 2021. The Russian chain of the orbit of the Kremlin RT, sanctioned and blocked in the EU due to misinformation, opened a branch in Belgrade last month, from where it broadcasts on-line for the region.
In fact, this Tuesday, upon her arrival at the summit, the president of Kosovo launched a taunt to that effect at Serbia. “You have countries that align with the EU and others that align with [el presidente ruso] Vladimir Putin. It should matter if you align with Ukraine or Russia, if you apply sanctions…”, Vjosa Osmani said. “Being on the right side of history should be the least that can be expected of us,” remarked Osmani, who pointed out that Kosovo -which Spain and four other EU countries do not recognize- will request its entry into the union before the end of the year.
The EU reaches out to the Balkans, but in return it also asks for commitments and gestures. “Russia is trying to gain influence, China too,” said the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. “We are the largest investor, the closest partner [de los Balcanes] and for this reason, the discussion focuses on this point: you have to decide which side you are on. On the side of democracy? The countries of the EU are their friends and partners”, has influenced the head of the community Executive in Tirana.
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