From: Alexandra Brzozowski
Western Balkans Welcome EU’s Geo-Strategic Enlargement Shift amid Ukraine War

Western Balkan leaders on Tuesday (6 December) welcomed the EU’s new mindset to strengthen ties with the region, a drive reinvigorated by Russia’s war in Ukraine and a series of agreements that include reduced roaming charges and integration in the bloc’s higher education systems.

“Things are changing,” Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama and host of the EU-Western Balkan Summit said on speaking alongside European Council President Charles Michel and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

The EU would be showing serious interest “for the first time” in the region for geopolitical, strategic, and economic reasons, Rama added.

It was a change in tone compared to a summit between the EU and its counterparts in Brussels in June, when regional leaders vented their frustration about the lack of progress on their path into the bloc.

Western Balkans fume over enlargement deadlock

EU officials and diplomats said that Russia’s war in Ukraine had underscored the importance for the bloc of bringing the Western Balkans closer to stabilise the region and counter the influence there of both Russia and China.

Hosted for the first time in a non-EU country and in the region, Rama told EURACTIV, “The summit can do a lot of good things. But in the end, none of the things will be as great as the summit happening in Tirana.”

First time hosted in the region, the meeting itself was the message for EU-Western Balkans summit.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the shift in the current geopolitical landscape has led to the realisation that the EU’s strategic interest in a stable and secure environment in its near neighbourhood must go beyond who will be the next member.

“Times are changing, in the sense that Europe can also offer things and not always demand, and sometimes offers work better than demands,” Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi told EURACTIV in October, explaining that for the EU, enlargement has stopped being a ‘one-way street’.

“The future of our children will be safe and more prosperous with the Western Balkans within the EU, and we are working very hard to make progress,” Michel told reporters in Tirana.

Michel recalled a “feeling of mutual frustration, fatigue” between Brussels and the Western Balkans but underlined that a “leap forward” was possible.

The summit was meant to assess the prospects of the six Western Balkan states – Albania, Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Serbia – to join the EU and examine areas where they can cooperate.

In a joint declaration issued after the summit, the bloc reconfirmed its “full and unequivocal commitment to the European Union membership perspective of the Western Balkans.”

But this needed to be based upon “credible reforms by partners; fair and rigorous conditionality,” the joint communiqué stated.

“We also expect the region to deliver on key reforms and certainly to show the will to embrace European ambition and spirit. Many do, but we see also hesitations,” EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell told a group of reporters, including EURACTIV, on the sidelines of the summit.

The summit statement also said that prospective members must align with the EU’s sanctions policy, though it failed to note Serbia’s refusal to adopt restrictive measures against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Their bids to join the EU “have gained momentum again”, von der Leyen told reporters in Tirana, but urged the Balkan six to “choose camps”..

“We (the EU) are the largest investor. We are the closest partner, and that is why the discussion is also about you having to decide which side you are on, the side of democracy,” von der Leyen stressed, adding that “Russia is trying to exert influence (in the Western Balkans). China tries to influence”.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Tuesday he detected a new, more positive mood among EU members on the prospect of Western Balkans countries joining the bloc compared to a few years ago.

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

Stuck in the waiting room

But Western Balkan countries have been stuck in the EU waiting room for years.

The decision over candidate status requires unanimity, but not all EU member states agree that it is the opportune step to take.

Beyond the EU’s financial commitments to the region, amounting to a €30 billion-strong Economic and Investment Plan focused on infrastructure projects, the bloc so far has been facing increasingly disillusioned prospective members.

They have regularly expressed frustration at the long and demanding membership process, especially since the EU moved so rapidly this year to accept Ukraine and Moldova as official candidates.

However, Tuesday’s meeting seemed to have reassured at least some of them that bloc membership is not too far off.

In July, Brussels finally began membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania, which applied in 2005 and 2014, respectively.

Negotiations have been underway for several years with Montenegro and Serbia, with the latter facing major alignment issues with the bloc’s foreign and security policy, while in October, Brussels recommended making Bosnia and Herzegovina an official EU candidate.

Michel, responding to a question by reporters in Tirana, said,  “a good signal will be given” in the coming days about granting candidate status to the Western Balkan state.

European affairs ministers are set to discuss the issue at their regular meeting on 13 December, after the European Commission recommended granting candidate status to Sarajevo in October on the condition that certain steps were taken, as EURACTIV reported before the decision was taken.

Kosovo, the sixth would-be member, faces challenges on its path to joining the EU, with currently five EU member countries – Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain – opposing its joining of the bloc.

Nevertheless, Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani said upon arrival that Pristina would apply for membership of the EU by the end of the year, pledging commitment to the Brussels-facilitated talks with Serbia to resolve outstanding differences.

Borrell said the EU submitted a new proposal on Monday to Belgrade and Pristina to try to normalise their relations.

Concrete deliverables

The EU confirmed a package of subsidies worth around €1 billion to help the Western Balkans whether the energy crisis triggered by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The subsidies should help attract public and private investments and raise at least €2.5 billion in total.

The EU27 bloc is also signed a deal with the region’s telecom operators to reduce roaming charges between the bloc and the Balkan states in 2023 and phase them out by 2027.

Roaming charges among the six Western Balkan countries were abolished in 2021 within the framework of the Berlin Process.

Moreover, the EU said it would also examine ways of cooperating on security issues, particularly preventing cyberattacks that have plagued the Western Balkans.

“Hybrid threats have become a serious threat for the region,” Borrell told reporters.

He added the bloc would be committed to “enhance resilience”, which has been brought on the way by launching rapid response intervention with experts deployed on the ground to support the countries in fighting those threats.

At the same time, illegal migration remains a key concern for the EU.

The so-called “Western Balkans route” is one of the main entry points used by a high number of would-be asylum seekers, many from conflict zones, to try and reach Western Europe.

According to the latest Frontex data, more than 128,000 illegal border crossings into the EU via the Western Balkans were recorded during the first 10 months of the year, with the agency saying the route remains “the most active” entry point to the bloc.

This represents a 168% increase compared to the same period in 2021.

That spike prompted the Commission on Monday to propose sending the EU border force Frontex to help police the Balkan borders.

The EU, for its part, has called Western Balkan countries to align their visa policies with its own.

Serbia has been accused of contributing to an increase in the number of migrants from Cuba, Burundi, India, and Tunisia entering the EU.

fiveUnder EU pressure, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has announced an end to visa exemptions for Tunisians and Burundians.