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20th Jan 2019

EU restates Balkans pledge, warns of Russia

  • Gentiloni warned of "other regional or global powers that are very interested in having an influence" (Photo: governo.it)

Italy has warned that Russia is competing with the EU for influence in the Western Balkans, as the bloc underlined its old enlargement pledge.

“There are other regional or global powers that are very interested in having an influence in this region,” Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni told press after a summit in Trieste, Italy, with Balkans and selected EU leaders on Wednesday (12 July).

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  • Macron (c) and Merkel's attendance added weight to the EU accession promise (Photo: governo.it)

He said there were geopolitical “tensions … difficulties … [and] misunderstandings” over the future of the six former Yugoslav nations.

He said EU accession “isn't around the corner” for any of them, but he added that: “I don’t think a freeze of this process in the next 10 years could be sustainable for these countries and I don’t think it would be helpful for the EU”.

Italy’s summit declaration “reaffirmed … unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans”.

It said “integrating the Western Balkans with the EU is a strategic investment in peace, democracy, prosperity, security and stability of Europe as a whole.”

It also warned that EU integration could be slowed due to “internal divisions or to external influences”, alluding to Russia, however.

The summit’s EU enlargement pledge was given weight by the attendance of French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel.

“Political stability in the region means political stability for us too. We know this from experience,” Merkel told the event.

The summit, part of the so-called Berlin Process launched by Merkel in 2014, saw the signature of a Transport Community Treaty and the launch of talks on a future Regional Economic Area.

The transport pact is to create up to 80,000 jobs in the next few years and lead to €514 million in EU and private sector investments in roads, bridges, railways and energy projects, the European Commission said.

The economic area is designed to create “free flow of goods and services” in preparation for the countries’ entry into the single market.

The Berlin Process came after the Commission said there would be no further enlargements until after 2019, dampening EU-romanticism in the region.

According to British pollster Gallup, more than 80 percent of Kosovars and Albanians and about 60 percent of Bosnians and Macedonians want to join the EU, but just 49 percent of Montengrins and 40 percent of Serbs want to do so.

The Trieste summit comes amid Russian diplomatic and propaganda efforts to sow ethnic divisions in Bosnia and Macedonia and to redouble its old alliance with Serbia.

Russia also stands accused of trying to stage an anti-Western coup in Montenegro last year.

Bosnia did not sign the EU’s transport plan due to objections by the Russia-friendly entity in the federation, Republika Srpska, the Reuters news agency reported.

Its foreign ministry criticised the Trieste projects “as some sort of substitute for EU membership” in a statement.

The “summit regretted that … and invited Bosnia and Herzegovina to join [the transport treaty] as soon as possible”, the Italian communique said.

"Very discouraging signal for their Bosnia's] further European perspective," EU enlargement commissioner, Johannes Hahn, said.

Meanwhile, Kosovo has said it would boycott plans for a regional customs union in order to maintain customs revenues, Reuters said, with the country’s foreign minister, Enver Hoxhaj, telling press that: “What has been offered to us on the table is not what was presented in February 2017 [at the last Berlin Process summit]”.

Russia aside, the Trieste declaration spoke of the need for “good neighbourly relations” and to curb “nationalist” rhetoric.

That referred primarily to a recent flare-up in ethnic tensions between Serbs and Kosovars and Macedonians and Albanians.

The EU has also lost face in the region due to Brexit and due to long-standing enlargement vetoes by Greece (on Macedonia) and by Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain (on Kosovo).

Boris Johnson, the British foreign minister, attended the event along with the Austrian, Slovenian, and Croatian leaders.

Johnson, whose country will host the summit next year, one year before it leaves the EU, said: “This is a firm demonstration of our support for much-needed reform to improve the region's security, boost the economy, and to combat challenges such as illegal drugs and human trafficking”.

Nikola Dimitrov, the Macedonian foreign minister, said the “desire of the region to join Europe is an opportunity for Europe to feel attractive” in the wake of the UK’s vote to leave.

He said Balkans enlargement was “an opportunity for Europe to show it can make a difference and that it can think big and be self-confident.”

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