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EU sweetens tone of Western Balkans summit

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The EU plans to sweeten its tone on enlargement at this week's Western Balkan summit, while voicing caution on Europe's readiness to take in more members.

"The EU reconfirms its commitment to the enlargement process and its decisions taken thereon, based upon credible reforms by partners, fair and rigorous conditionality and the principle of own merits," EU leaders plan to say in Brdo, Slovenia, together with six Western Balkan ones on Wednesday (6 October).

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The reassuring words were added to a draft Brdo declaration dated 30 September, compared to earlier versions seen by this website.

But at the same time, EU states also inserted a new caveat, saying: "While acknowledging the progress made by the Western Balkans ... we stress the importance of ensuring that the EU can maintain and deepen its own development, including its capacity to integrate new members".

The summit is a flagship event of Slovenian prime minister Janez Janša's EU presidency.

It comes in tense times, after a fringe party, Resni, organised unruly anti-vaccination protests in recent weeks.

And police are to curb public access to parts of Ljubljana, the lakeside town of Bled, and around the Brdo pri Kranju EU summit venue on Tuesday and Wednesday to stop protesters targeting the event.

Meanwhile, the EU declaration's mixed message has been matched by recent events.

On one hand, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen toured the Western Balkans last week promising people an EU future.

But on the other hand, Bulgaria continues to veto Albania and North Macedonia accession talks.

Denmark, France, and the Netherlands continue to block a Kosovo visa-free travel deal.

And Germany has led EU talks on possibly freezing existing visa-waivers in the region due to a spike in asylum applications.

The draft Brdo declaration also flagged the good news that the EU gave Western Balkan states 2.9m Covid-vaccine doses in the pandemic.

And it proposed fast-tracking a €600m aid package for this year.

But it had few concrete things to announce, except the launch of a project to stop a science brain-drain from Western Balkan universities.

And beyond the financial sweeteners, it pointed to the somber realities of the enlargement status quo.

It said that solving "remaining cases of missing persons and war-crimes issues" were important for regional stability.

And it warned Kosovo and Serbia that they needed to make progress in EU-brokered talks on bilateral relations "to ensure that they can continue on their respective European paths".

The new draft voiced fresh concern on energy security, as Russia encircled the EU with two new pipelines - TurkStream and Nord Stream 2.

"Energy security should also be prioritised, including the diversification of sources and routes," the EU added.

It urged Western Balkan leaders to "act accordingly" when they aligned themselves with EU foreign policy, such as sanctions.

The 30 September draft sounded more hawkish on migrants, for instance, by cutting a previous phrase which had voiced concern for "supporting the needs of the partners, the host communities and the migrants themselves".

And it voiced fresh concern on "the prevention of the financing of terrorism and of radicalisation" in the Western Balkans.

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