EU seeks to reassure Western Balkans on accession amid fears of Russia influence

  • Western Balkans promised eventual EU membership
  • Region frustrated by no advance in negotiations with bloc
  • EU 'working very hard to make progress' -EU Council chief
  • Bloc worries about Russian, Chinese influence in Balkans

TIRANA, Dec 6 (Reuters) - A summit of European Union and Western Balkan leaders yielded few concrete steps on the region's future in the wealthy EU but offered it hope for some progress next week, amid a better atmosphere in talks than previously.

European Council chief Charles Michel said he hoped there would be a "positive signal" at an EU summit on Dec. 15-16 on Bosnia's bid for EU candidacy status and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said visa liberalisation for Kosovo was necessary.

At a previous summit in June, Balkan leaders publicly and harshly criticised the EU for the lack of progress in accession talks amid disillusion that negotiations have not started or are stalled, years after they were promised eventual EU membership.

While reluctance to further enlarge the EU is still rife among the 27 member states, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has led them to devote more energy to enhancing relations with the six Balkan countries of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.

Fears of spreading Russian and Chinese influence in the Western Balkans is also a key factor. Scholz spoke of a new mood in the EU regarding the region.

At the end of the summit in the Albanian capital Tirana, EU leaders reaffirmed their "full and unequivocal commitment to the EU membership perspective of the Western Balkans and call for the acceleration of the accession process".

"We had our frustrations ... but we never gave up on this faith in the EU," said Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, the summit host who in June had said slowness in the EU accession process for the region was a "disgrace."

"The progress made in the last years, no doubt also because of the war (in Ukraine) as an accelerator, is immense," Rama said, speaking in English.

On the sidelines, the EU drafted a new proposal for normalisation of ties between Serbia and Kosovo, its former rebellious province, with a clear timeline of actions, a senior EU diplomat said.

In moves towards integration, telecoms operators within the EU agreed to cut data roaming charges in the Western Balkans from Oct. 2023, and Brussels pledged 1 billion euro in grants for energy.

Balkans leaders would like to see much more, however.

"Kosovo will be submitting its application for EU membership by the end of this year," its president, Vjosa Osmani-Sadriu, said, adding that she hopes next week's EU summit would approve visa liberalisation for her country.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo hinted that the path to accession will still be long for the region. "We know that there is progress, we know that there is an ambition to make this progress work faster... But there is no shortcut."

RUSSIA'S ROLE

Old Balkans tensions that have hindered the accession process were also clear.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, criticised within the EU for maintaining close ties with Moscow, said his country was "on the EU path" but also needed to defend its own interests. "Is Serbia too close to Russia? Serbia is an independent country," he said.

The EU's aim is to give greater stability to a region that emerged from the bloody 1990s break-up of Yugoslavia but is still racked by tensions. The bloc, however, also wants to deny Moscow a gateway for causing trouble on its southeastern flank.

Serbia in particular, which was bombed by NATO two decades ago to force it to halt a brutal counter-insurgency campaign in Kosovo, has long struggled to balance historically close ties with Russia against aspirations for integration with the West.

"We also expect the region to deliver on key reforms and certainly to show the will to embrace European ambition and the spirit. Many do. But we see also hesitations," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said.

EU leaders also pushed their Balkans counterparts to be more forceful in implementing EU standards such as the rule of law, while aligning with EU policies including on immigration. The EU says loose visa regimes of several Balkans countries have helped boost the number of migrants crossing into the bloc.

Additional reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic, Benoit Van Overstraeten, Ingrid Melander, Sudip Kar-Gupta, Andreas Rinke; Writing by Sabine Siebold and Ingrid Melander Editing by John Chalmers, Frank Jack Daniel, Alexandra Hudson and Mark Heinrich

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