TIRANA, Albania (AP) — European Union leaders and their Western Balkan counterparts worked to strengthen their partnership at a summit Tuesday as Russia's war in Ukraine threatens to reshape the geopolitical balance in the region.
Even though their goal of joining the bloc remains a distant one, Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia were given concrete signs that their future is within the EU instead of mere promises of eventual membership.
European Council President Charles Michel, who jointly chaired the summit in Albania's capital, Tirana, hailed it as a “symbolic meeting” that will cement their futures within Europe.
As proof of the bloc's commitment, Michel underscored EU energy support to the region in light of the war's impact on supplies and prices, as well as a mobile telephone roaming charges agreement.
“I am absolutely convinced that the future of our children will be safe and more prosperous with the Western Balkans within the EU, and we are working very hard in order to make progress,” he told reporters.
The EU last admitted a new member — Croatia, which is also part of the Balkans — in 2013.
But since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, EU officials have been repeating that stepping up the bloc's engagement with the six nations is more crucial than ever to maintaining Europe's security.
As Europe's relationship with Russia deteriorates further because of the war, tensions have also mounted in the Balkans and the EU wants to avoid other flashpoints close to its borders in a neighborhood that was torn by conflicts following the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
“The war is sending shockwaves, it affects everybody, and especially this region," the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said.
According to a draft of the declaration to be adopted at the summit, the EU will repeat “its full and unequivocal commitment to the European Union membership perspective of the Western Balkans" and call for an acceleration of accession talks with the incumbents.
In return, the EU expects full solidarity from its Western Balkans partners and wants them fully aligned with its foreign policies.
That particular point has been problematic with Serbia, whose president, Aleksandar Vucic, claims he wants to take Serbia into the European Union but has cultivated ties with Russia.
Although Serbia’s representatives voted in favor of various U.N. resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vucic has refused to explicitly condemn Moscow. His country has not joined Western sanctions against Russia over the war.
“The Western Balkans have decided to embark on the European path, this is a two-way street," Borrell said. “And we also expect the region to deliver on key reforms, and certainly to show the will to embrace the European Union's ambition and spirit. Many do, but we see also hesitations."
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen also warned of China's growing influence in the Western Balkans.
“We notice very clearly that the Ukraine war is not only Russia’s cruel war against Ukraine, but also a question of whether autocracies and the law of the strongest will prevail. Or whether democracy and the rule of law will prevail," Von der Leyen said. “And this struggle is also noticeable in the Western Balkans. Russia is trying to exert influence, China is trying to exert influence."
The EU remains the Western Balkans' main trade partner, accounting for over two-thirds of the region’s total trade, according to the bloc's data.
“We are the closest partner and that is why the discussion is also about you having to decide which side you are on," the Commission president said.
Although the progress of the six nations toward EU membership had stalled recently, there has been some progress over the past few months.
This summer, the EU started membership negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia following years of delays. And Bosnia moved a small step closer on its path to joining the bloc when the commission advised member countries in October to grant it candidate status despite continuing criticism of the way the nation is run.
Kosovo has only started the first step and said it would apply for candidate status later this month.
“We need the EU to move from words to deeds,” said Kosovo president Vjosa Osmani.
To help households and businesses weather the impact of Russia's war on energy and food security, the EU has earmarked one billion euros in grants to the Western Balkans, hoping the money will encourage double the investment.
Leaders also discussed migration issues that remains one of Europe’s biggest concerns in light of the number of migrants trying to enter the bloc without authorization via the Western Balkans, notably through Serbia.
The EU’s border agency Frontex said it had detected more than 22,300 attempted entries in October, nearly three times as many as a year ago. Around 500 Frontex officers are working along the EU’s borders with Balkan nations but staff will soon be deployed inside the region itself.
One cause of the movements is that Serbia, which wants to join the EU, has not aligned its visa policies with the bloc. People from several countries requiring visas to enter the bloc arrive in Serbia without such paperwork, then slip through. Many from Burundi, Tunisia, India, Cuba and Turkey enter the EU this way.
Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this story.