Monday

26th Jul 2021

EU restates marriage proposal to Balkan hopefuls

  • EU Council president Charles Michel and staff in Brussels during the virtual 'Zagreb' meeting (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

The EU has restated its marriage proposal to Western Balkan aspirants, while quietly warning them on Chinese and Russian influence.

"The EU once again reaffirms its unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans," the bloc's 27 leaders said in what they called the "Zagreb Declaration", after meeting their six Balkan counterparts in a video-summit on Wednesday (20 May).

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"This Zagreb summit sends a strong message - EU 27 are committed to the region," EU Council president Charles Michel also told press.

"It is a very important signal. It is a very important message that we have reaffirmed, that we have reconfirmed," he added.

"Their objective is the European Union and this summit is helping them to go in the right direction," Croatian prime minister Andrej Plenković also said.

The summit was meant to have taken place in the Croatian capital.

And it was meant to have been the jewel in the crown of Croatia's six-month EU presidency, coming a symbolic 20 years after the EU first met Balkans hopefuls in Zagreb to begin the integration process.

Since then, Croatia and Slovenia have joined.

Montenegro and Serbia have started accession talks. Albania and North Macedonia are starting theirs shortly, while Kosovo and Bosnia are trailing behind.

Wednesday's summit declaration also tacitly referred to the recent growth of Chinese and Russian influence in the region, via a mixture of strategic investment, coercive diplomacy, and disinformation.

"The EU reiterates its calls on all partners to progress towards full alignment with EU foreign policy positions, notably on issues where major common interests are at stake, and to act accordingly," the EU summit declaration said.

The message is "you cannot pander to the Chinese and the Russians when it suits you", an EU diplomat told the Reuters news agency prior to the talks.

The EU, earlier this week, earmarked €3.3bn to help the six Balkan aspirants fight coronavirus and keep their economies going, in a mixture of grants and loans.

The EU has exempted them from export restrictions on medical equipment.

And it also promised a "robust economic and investment plan" for regional economies on Wednesday after the pandemic abates.

"The fact that this support and cooperation goes far beyond what any other partner has provided to the region deserves public acknowledgement," the EU summit statement said, in another allusion to China and Russia, who had widely publicised their (much smaller) anti-virus assistance to the Western Balkans.

EU countries recently agreed, under French pressure, to create a new enlargement methodology that will see democratic backsliders punished by reversals in their EU negotiations.

And the summit declaration also said: "The credibility of this commitment [to EU accession] depends also on clear public communication and the implementation of the necessary reforms [by the hopefuls]".

"It is important to continue the reforms, to implement the reforms, the rule of law, the democratic values, and the fight against corruption," the EU's Michel added.

But there were no detailed talks on Wednesday on how to solve thorny regional problems, such as Kosovo and Serbia's frozen conflict.

For his part, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, told press, in the run-up to the summit, it was up to the two sides to agree terms of future normal relations.

Some took that as his thinly-veiled support for a land-swap deal - exchanging a majority ethnic Serb area in Kosovo for an ethnic Albanian one in Serbia.

And the US has taken a similar line in recent months, despite German fears that a land-swap could destabilise the region.

There was also no talk on Wednesday of imminent progress on future enlargement, as Europe, and the rest of the world, continued to focus their attention on fighting coronavirus for now.

Press freedom in Balkans better than some EU states

EU candidate countries such as Albania, Montenegro and Serbia have relatively poor press freedoms - but still fare much better than Bulgaria, an EU state whose ranking in the World Press Freedom index has plummeted.

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