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European Union Offers a New Growth Plan to Western Balkans That Partly Opens Access to Single Market

TIRANA, Albania — European Union leaders offered a new growth plan Monday to the six Western Balkans countries that opens parts of the EU single market to them in return for deep reforms, ahead of their full membership in the bloc.

The integration of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia into the EU was discussed at a summit Monday in Albania’s capital as part of annual talks called the Berlin Process. The meeting was attended by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel, as well as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

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 Croatia became the last country to join.

The six Western Balkan countries are at different stages of integration into the bloc. Serbia and Montenegro launched 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.”

The EU has made it a requirement for Western Balkan countries to reform their economies and political institutions before joining, including by improving the regulatory structure for business, fighting corruption and stamping out organized crime.

Von der Leyen said Monday that the EU’s new growth plan for those countries could allow them to enter portions of the EU single market on a case-by-case basis in return for demonstrated reforms.

The countries would be able to join the EU market in the areas of goods and services, road transport, energy, electricity, customs cooperation, e-commerce and cashless payments, “just to name a few,” von der Leyen said.

The countries that comply swiftly with requested reforms would in turn receive investment, von der Leyen said. The Commission head said EU leaders have proposed a 6 billion Euro ($6.3 billion) investment package, 2 billion euros ($2.1 billion) of grants and 4 billion Euros ($4.2 billion) of loans.

“Funds will be relieved upon delivery of reforms. So it is conditional,” she said at the news conference at the end of the summit.

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,” von der Leyen said. By failing to move ahead with reforms, “the only one you can block is yourself,” she said.

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.”

EU officials have urged the Balkan countries to overcome regional conflicts and stand together as Russia wages war in Ukraine.

French President Emmanuel Macron did not attend the summit and sent a representative instead, due to a fatal stabbing at a school in northern France, but he was due to begin an official visit to Tirana later on Monday.

Von der Leyen said she considered the new growth plan “a very strong incentive,” adding that “Only by working together, we will bring the Western Balkans right where you belong, to the heart of the European Union.”

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama hailed the new plan as promising as it supported “the idea of a decent relationship that function more like partners sharing a home with better understanding.”

“The new growth plan has the potential, if implemented, to double the size of the Western Balkan economy,” von der Leyen said.

The summit, which is being held for the first time in a non-EU member country, took 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.

Source : AP News