BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union’s 27 leaders on Wednesday gave their “unequivocal support” for the six Balkan countries to eventually become members of the bloc and offered them more financial support as Brussels seeks to check Chinese largesse.
The EU says it has not been given enough credit for the 3.3 billion euros ($3.6 billion) it is providing, an amount officials said outweighs medical supplies Beijing and Moscow sent to Serbia and Bosnia in the early phase of the coronavirus pandemic.
The summit, planned for the Croatian capital Zagreb 20 years after the first ever EU-Balkan gathering, took place by video, linking the heads of Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and North Macedonia with the 27 EU leaders.
Still scarred by 1990s wars, all six countries aspire to join the EU, though the response to the COVID-19 disease dominated discussions on Wednesday.
“The EU once again reaffirms its unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans,” the leaders of EU institutions and EU governments said in a final declaration, a reference to future membership once reforms are undertaken.
The leaders promised a “robust economic and investment plan” for the Balkans to help recover from the coronavirus crisis on top of the 3.3 billion euros.
China and Russia flew doctors and medical supplies to Bosnia and Serbia in March to help halt spreading of the coronavirus at a time when the EU’s initial response was slow.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who at the time publicly thanked President Xi Jinping and the Chinese people, said on Wednesday in a statement that he was grateful for EU help.
Asked by reporters after the summit if Balkan leaders should show more praise for the European Union, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said: “their objective is the European Union and this summit is helping them to go in the right direction.”
The final summit declaration also demanded that Balkan countries follow EU foreign policy objectives, a veiled reference to concerns about countries aligning themselves too closely to Russia and China, which the EU says does not offer the same path towards becoming prosperous democracies.
“The EU reiterates its calls on all partners 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 summit declaration said.
After years of neglect, the six countries now have the attention of EU governments, who have been worried about Chinese and Russian influence in the region for several years and a slide towards authoritarianism, corruption and organised crime.
U.S. democracy watchdog group Freedom House said in a report this week that Serbia and Montenegro could no longer be classed as developing democracies but rather “hybrid regimes” without proper checks and balances on executive power.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned in November that if the EU did not do more, “others will”. On Wednesday, summit chair European Council President Charles Michel said the EU needed to be more active in the region.
The Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik, praised Russia last month, criticising Brussels for initially limiting exports of medical aid to non-EU members, although he later softened his language.
“This Zagreb summit sends a strong message — EU 27 are committed to the region,” Michel said.
In March, North Macedonia and Albania won approval to start EU membership talks after a two-year delay, helping to counter a sense in the region that hopes of joining the bloc were fading.
To add to the problems, five EU countries do not recognise Kosovo’s independence, including Spain.
At the summit, all leaders appeared against neutral backgrounds to avoid insignia that one EU official said “would make the video conference difficult” as lingering diplomatic tensions mean nationalist symbols could cause offence.
Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels, Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade and Maja Zuvela in Sarajevo; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Bernadette Baum