July 4, 2018 / 8:39 PM / 9 months ago

Western Balkan leaders aim for closer cooperation to boost growth

THESSALONIKI, Greece (Reuters) - Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania will work closer on energy and transport projects to better connect their economies, their leaders said on Wednesday after a summit in Thessaloniki.

(from L to R) Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Romanian Prime Minister Viorica Dancila and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov join hands following a joint press conference, during a mini summit of the leaders of the four countries to discuss regional cooperation, in Thessaloniki, Greece, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandros Avramidis

“Railway, highway and port interconnectivity offers our region an important geopolitical perspective,” Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said at the meeting in northern Greece.

“We can build the foundations for the European Balkans.”

Tsipras, who reached a deal with Skopje last month to end a decades-old dispute over use of the name Macedonia, said there was increasingly “common thinking” among the four leaders on seeing their countries grow together.

Athens and Skopje signed a pact to rename the former Yugoslav state North Macedonia in hopes of lifting an obstacle that has prevented Macedonia from joining the European Union and NATO.

Tsipras said a new phase of progress was opening in the Balkans, with Serbia and Montenegro also eyeing EU membership.

The two countries are the frontrunners for EU membership and the EU’s executive Commission has set a tentative target accession date of 2025.

The EU aims to further strengthen ties with Serbia and other nations in the Western Balkans as they edge toward eventual membership.

Apart from Serbia and Montenegro, Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia are also candidates to join the EU, but the region remains badly scarred by the ethnic wars of the 1990s.

“We feel that Serbia is a member of our common European family,” Tsipras said.

EU members such as Poland, Italy and Austria want the bloc to expand into the Western Balkans, which has seen growing Russian and Chinese influence. The EU remains the region’s main investor and trade partner.

Writing by George Georgiopoulos; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

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