Leaders of the European Union have reaffirmed their "unequivocal support" for six Western Balkan states to eventually become members of the bloc and offered them fresh financial support as the region struggles to cope with the coronavirus crisis.
With Russia and China vying for influence in the region, the leaders of EU institutions and member states gathered for a roughly two-hour video summit on May 6 with EU hopefuls Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia.
The summit avoided advancing membership talks and instead focused on the socioeconomic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed about 140,000 people on the continent, eroded economic growth, and suppressed any appetite EU leaders have for enlargement.
“The Western Balkans belongs in the EU and there is no question for us about it,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said after the summit.
The EU has a “special responsibility in assisting its partners in the region,” particularly “regarding the impact of the coronavirus,” she added.
In their final declaration, the EU leaders said the bloc “once again reaffirms its unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans."
They also promised a "robust economic and investment plan" for the Balkans to help recover from the COVID-19 crisis, on top of the 3.3 billion euros ($3.6 billion) in emergency funding that the EU already mobilized for the region.
Von der Leyen said the new package, to be presented later this year, would focus on transport and energy infrastructure but also EU policy priorities like fighting climate change. There was no indication of how big the package might be.
In return, the EU leaders sought assurances that the six countries stand ready to carry out political, democratic, and economic reforms, warning: “Increased EU assistance will be linked to tangible progress in the rule of law and in socioeconomic reforms, as well as on the Western Balkans partners’ adherence to EU values, rules, and standards.”
The final summit declaration also called on Balkan countries to “progress towards full alignment with EU foreign policy positions, notably on issues where major common interests are at stake, and to act accordingly."
The talks, which before the coronavirus epidemic were planned to be held in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, came as the EU tries to counter criticism it was initially slow to help the Balkans handle the crisis.
The EU’s response stood in contrast to Russia and China, which widely publicized their quick delivery of shipments of masks and other gear.
In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vucic criticized the EU for a lack of solidarity at the start of the crisis while praising Russian and Chinese assistance.
But the EU leaders on May 6 underlined that European “support and cooperation goes far beyond what any other partner has provided to the region [which] deserves public acknowledgement.”
Of the Western Balkan states, Serbia and North Macedonia have progressed the most toward eventual EU membership but are still years away.
Albania and North Macedonia, which after a frustrating delay last year were given the green light in March to formally start membership negotiations, are still waiting for a concrete start date.
Kosovo and Bosnia are still trying to earn candidate status.