EU and Western Balkan leaders met in Tirana on December 6 in the first EU-Western Balkans Summit ever held outside the EU itself.
Key topics included EU Enlargement, the war in Ukraine, migration, economic aid, as well as cybersecurity and regional diplomatic ties. The relatively short half-day Tirana meeting was co-chaired by Albanian PM Edi Rama and European Council President Charles Michel.
A large opposition-organized protest demonstration was held in downtown Tirana, which later erupted into scuffles and produced some injuries. The protestors accused the government of corruption but were careful to explain the demonstration was not at all aimed against the EU.
Shoring up the borderlands
EU leaders clearly understand the need to stabilize the Western Balkans during wartime and minimize Russian and Chinese influence in the region, but the question is how much can be accomplished in this regard – beyond simply talk – in an EU Summit framework without active American participation.
The obvious answer for Brussels is to highlight the EU’s accession prospects of the countries in the region: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia. That is exactly what was done, as widely anticipated, in the summit communique, wherein the EU “reconfirmed its full and unequivocal commitment to the European Union membership perspective of the Western Balkans”.
And, as always, Brussels called for the acceleration of accession talks which are in a range of different stages with individual countries and have not started with others. It was notable that the communique focused on the need for “credible reforms by Partners.”
The generic one size fits all “membership perspective” statement was nonetheless seen as good news by many in an environment where the discussion of a new round of EU Enlargement had long been a controversial subject, if not outright blocked. The accession procedures for Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo have not yet been formally agreed upon. The situation for both has become more urgent after the EU’s decision to grant Ukraine EU candidate status earlier this year.
Full Summit text here: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/media/60568/tirana-declaration-en.pdf
A common front against Russia, minus Serbia
One of the key takeaways from the Summit was the failure of Serbia to modify its refusal to implement EU sanctions against Russia as called for in the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy.
The attendance of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic was in question until the last minute, and although the impasse over Russian sanctions remains, Vucic declared that he had “the most open and honest conversation so far” with EU and Western Balkan officials at the summit. Serbia did not endorse the summit communiqué, although Vucic attempted to finesse this by claiming it was acceptable to him on a personal level.
Migration along the Western Balkans route remains problematic
Those in attendance did address the ongoing migration concerns facing the region, primarily created by visa-free entry rules that many Western Balkan states have implemented, generating a surge of border crossing attempts this year all along the so-called Western Balkans route.
While the major source of illegal immigration in recent months has been via Serbia and Albania, these are not the only countries contributing to the problem. The Summit communique calls for partner countries to undertake “swift alignment with EU visa policy” and “to continue to enhance their return systems, including by concluding readmission agreements with key countries of origin,” as well as with the airlines involved in transporting the migrants.
EU officials are also planning to deploy FRONTEX border patrol agents inside Western Balkan countries for the first time in the coming months.
On the sidelines, small steps
The EU reportedly delivered a new proposal for the normalization of ties between Kosovo and Serbia with a clear timeline of actions, according to a senior EU diplomat, but the text has not yet become public. Also, an agreement was announced among telecom operators in the European Union and Western Balkans, one that will reduce roaming charges for the region and to/from the EU beginning in October 2023, with further cuts planned for a later date.
The EU had earlier earmarked €1 billion in energy-related Ukraine war support grants to the Western Balkans, but this aid package was only highlighted at the summit.