The war in Ukraine brings the EU and the Balkans closer

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine continues to cause changes in the European geopolitical tableau. The summit of the leaders of the European Union and the Western Balkans held yesterday in Tirana (Albania) transcended the symbolic value, no less, of being held in a candidate country and carried out several concrete initiatives with which they want to demonstrate the “unequivocal ” to speed up the enlargement process and deepen regional integration.

Among the “tangible” achievements with which this message is to be conveyed to the population of these countries, a one billion euro aid package for vulnerable households and companies stands out to face the rise in the price of energy, investments in renewable energies, an agreement with the operators to reduce mobile phone roaming costs and the green light for the participation of the universities of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia in the Erasmus program and the European network of higher education institutions.

The EU promotes a reduction in ‘roaming’, will give aid for the energy crisis and will open its universities

The war in Ukraine “is endangering peace and security at a European and global level, and demonstrates the importance of the strategic association between the Union and the Western Balkans”, affirms the statement agreed by the leaders of both blocs, who have agreed to “better reflect” in its public communication the fact that the EU is “the closest partner, its main investor and trading partner, and main donor”. The current community budget has reserved 29,500 million euros for the region.The previous joint summit, in June, ended badly, with the leaders of North Macedonia and Albania airing their frustration over Bulgaria’s veto at the start of their accession talks after 17 and 8 years respectively as candidates as the EU opened its gates to Ukraine. But that crisis served as a shock, and a few weeks later this obstacle was overcome, so both rulers returned to Brussels to start negotiations. At the turn of the summer, the European Commission proposed to recognize Bosnia as a candidate country and this month the ambassadors of the Twenty-seven have given the green light to the lifting of visas for the citizens of Kosovo from 2024.

That is the spirit that has been encouraged in Tirana. “We have had our frustrations, but we have never lost faith in the EU,” said the Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, host of the summit, who spoke of a “change of mentality.” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz welcomed the “renewed momentum” for Balkan integration and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo highlighted “how much has already been done and that it is going well”, while European Council leaders , Charles Michel, and the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, spoke of “new momentum” for enlargement, a train that stopped in 2013 with the entry of Croatia.

But as the declaration agreed in the Albanian capital recalls, there are no shortcuts on this path, no matter how much there is a desire to “accelerate” the negotiations. The EU is “committed” to the prospect of accession of the Balkans”, but the process is based on the “merits” of each country in the reforms that are expected of them in terms of the rule of law and the fight against corruption. It is “in the interest of both parties” so be it.

Cooperation between the EU and the countries of the region also involves the delicate dossier of immigration

Cooperation between the EU and the countries of the region also goes through the delicate dossier of immigration. The European border agency, Frontex, has detected 22,300 arrivals in October, almost triple that of a year earlier, and nervousness spreads in the region. There are already 500 agents working on the border, but Brussels has proposed a plan that will allow them to be deployed within these countries. 

The EU has pledged to increase financial and logistical support to manage these flows of people, but has also again called on its governments to align their visa policy with the EU. The opening policy towards countries that do not have visa exemption agreements with the community club is related to the increase in arrivals from Burundi, Tunisia, India or Cuba. Belgrade has terminated its agreements with Tunisia, and Burundi and Tirana, for their part, will not renew theirs with India and Egypt.

In a message addressed primarily to Serbia, the only country that has not joined the European sanctions against Russia, the Tirana statement recalls the responsibility that this alliance implies. “Being together with the EU is a clear sign of strategic orientation, now more than ever, when Russia intensifies its war of aggression against Ukraine”, for which reason they demand “full alignment” from all countries with foreign policy and common security, including sanctions. “We know our obligations to the European path” but “Serbia is an independent country and defends its interests,” said its president, Aleksandar Vučić.

Efforts to defuse the tensions of the past few months between Belgrade and Pristina also featured prominently at the summit. Josep Borrell, high representative of the Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, sent a new version of the proposed agreement for the normalization of relations to both capitals the night before last. If there is a will, it could be completed in months, according to Brussels. “Now is the time to move on and forget the confrontations,” Borrell insists.

At the end of the summit, the news arrived of several explosions in the region of Kosovo inhabited by the Serb minority; the former Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha was punched during an anti-government demonstration held a few meters from the summit, and Vučić, back in Belgrade, denied the Tirana declaration to the local press. Rama already said it at the beginning of the summit: “Brussels is a symphony and the Balkans are rock and roll… This is much less boring than Brussels, that’s why they are so happy to be here.”