TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Leaders from the European Union offered a new growth plan to the Western Balkans at a summit in Albania’s capital on Monday, opening parts of the EU single market and asking for deep-rooted reforms ahead of membership in the bloc for the six countries of the region.
The main topics at the annual talks — called the Berlin Process — are the integration of the Western Balkans into the single market and supporting their green and digital transformation. The nations in the region are Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.
The senior EU officials attending the summit in Tirana were European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel. They were joined by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
French President Emmanuel Macron did not join the summit, due to the recent incident when a teacher was fatally stabbed and three people wounded in a school attack in northern France. He was represented by State Secretary Laurence Boon.
Macron was due to begin an official visit to Tirana later on Monday.
The six Western Balkan countries are at different stages of integration into the bloc. Serbia and Montenegro were the first Western Balkan countries to launch membership negotiations a few years ago, followed by Albania and Macedonia last year, while Bosnia and Kosovo have only begun the first step of the integration process.
Scholtz said “the Berlin process is the best instrument to not only unleash the full potential of regional cooperation, but also to speed up the integration of all Western Balkan countries.”
Russia’s war in Ukraine has put integration of the Western Balkans into the EU at the top of the 27-nation bloc’s agenda. The EU is trying to reinvigorate the whole enlargement process, which has been stalled since 2013, when the Croatia became the last country to join.
The EU made it a requirement for Western Balkans to reform their economies and political institutions before joining.
Von der Leyen mentioned a new growth plan for the Western Balkan countries: opening new trade routes in specific areas of the EU’s common market for the Balkan countries such as the free movement of goods and services, road transport, energy, electricity and the digital single market. The six countries need to implement quick reforms that in turn will be accompanied by investment.
The EU has already mobilized 16 billion euros ($16.8 billion) for investment in the region out of 30 billion euros ($31.5 billion) pledged three years ago.
“We really have to tap into the potential that is here in the Western Balkans and get it closer to the European single market,” she said.
The six countries need to move with deep-rooted reforms to improve the business climate, make the regulatory environment more attractive and access to each other’s markets, she added.
“If there are blockages, the only one you can block is yourself,” said von der Leyen.
A bitter dispute between Serbia and Kosovo, a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008, remains a great concern for the EU.
An EU-facilitated dialogue to normalize ties has stalled, following a recent shootout between masked Serb gunmen and Kosovo police that left four people dead and sent tensions soaring in the region.
Scholtz called on both Serbia and Kosovo to return to the negotiating table, underlining “the urgent need to work together and overcome antagonism.”
“It is time to overcome conflicts that have continued for far too long and only hold two countries back,” he said.
EU officials have urged the Balkan countries to overcome regional conflicts and stand together as Russia wages war in Ukraine.
“Any progress you make on the common regional market will bring you significantly closer to EU standards,” said Scholtz.
Von der Leyen considered the new growth plan “a very strong incentive … to open the doors economically, but also to ask for opening the borders between the Western Balkan countries and to do the necessary reforms. With that comes the funding for investment.”
“Only by working together, we will bring the Western Balkans right where you belong to the heart of the European Union,” she said.
Michel urged the Western Balkan countries to “deliver on your commitments, starting with the necessary reforms, and in EU, we need to prepare to welcome new members.”
“I repeat, to do that, I think, I believe we must be ready on both sides by 2030 to enlarge,” he said, adding, “It’s an encouragement, a support to redouble our efforts.”
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama hailed the new plan as very promising as it supported “the idea of a decent relationship that function more like partners sharing a home with better understanding, better share the burdens.”
The summit, which is being held for the first time in a non-EU member country, takes place at a pharaonic landmark, known as the Pyramid. It was built in 1988 as a posthumous museum for Albania’s communist-era strongman, Enver Hoxha.
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