Fears of Russian influence prompt leaders from the EU and Western Balkans to meet

The EU aims to reassure six Balkan countries about a future in the bloc amid fears of growing Russian and Chinese influence.

Leaders of the European Union and the Western Balkans have gathered in Tirana, the Albanian capital, for a summit aimed at ensuring the region a future in the wealthy bloc amid fears of growing Russian and Chinese influence.

Leaders of the six Balkan countries of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia have long expressed disappointment that negotiations have not started or are stalled, years after they were promised eventual membership in the EU.

While reluctance to further expand the EU abounds among member states, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has pushed them to focus more energy on bringing the region closer to the bloc.

“I am absolutely convinced that the future of our children will be safer and more prosperous with the Western Balkans within the EU and we are working very hard to make progress,” EU Council chief Charles Michel said at the start of the the meeting on Tuesday.

Data roaming charges

In a concrete step towards integration, EU telecom operators and the six leaders of the Western Balkans signed an agreement on Tuesday morning, at the start of the summit, on a reduction in data roaming charges from October 2023.

While some of the Balkan leaders welcomed the move, they also stressed that they wanted more.

“Kosovo will submit its application for EU membership at the end of this year,” its president, Vjosa Osmani-Sadriu, said when she arrived at the summit, stressing that she hopes the EU summit next week will approve visa liberalization. for Kosovo.

Old tensions within the region were also made clear when he criticized Serbia’s attitude and said that Kosovo was “100 percent aligned” with the EU’s views.

“Whether you are with Ukraine today or with Russia should matter, whether you have sanctions against Russia or not should matter,” Osmani-Sadriu said.

Meanwhile, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said upon reaching the summit: “Is Serbia too close to Russia? Serbia is an independent country.”

Serbia, he said, is “on the path of the EU and will remain so” but also needs to defend its own interests.

Gateway to trouble

The EU’s goal is to bring more stability to a region that emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia and the ethnic wars of the 1990s, but is still under tension.

But the moves toward closer integration are also designed to deny Moscow a gateway to cause trouble in what is seen as a weak point on the 27-nation EU’s southeastern flank.

Serbia in particular, which was bombed by NATO 20 years ago, has long struggled to balance historically close ties with Russia and aspirations for economic and political integration with the West.

EU leaders will also push their Balkan counterparts to be more forceful in implementing EU standards such as the rule of law, gender equality, minority protection and anti-corruption. and organized crime, while aligning with EU policies, such as sanctions on Russia. .

At the same time, the EU has been working hard to plug what it sees as loopholes in the visa regimes of several Balkan countries that have helped increase the number of asylum seekers crossing into the bloc.

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