Leaders of the EU and six Western Balkan countries met in a video conference on Wednesday for a high-level summit in which the EU affirmed its support for the region during the ongoing coronavirus crisis, including €3.3 billion in funding.
The EU-Western Balkans Zagreb Summit – initially planned to take place in Croatia’s capital of Zagreb as the country is holding the rotating six-month presidency of the EU during the first half of 2020 – was held via video link due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Although EU foreign ministers had given the green light for membership negotiations to start with candidate countries North Macedonia and Albania, the Zagreb Declaration adopted at the meeting on Wednesday does not mention enlargement and instead talks about “affirming the European perspective of the region” and the six countries who are all hoping to join the EU.
Montenegro and Serbia are already in accession talks with Brussels since 2012 and 2014 respectively, and both are considered likely to formally join the bloc by 2025. Bosnia and Herzegovina had applied for membership in 2016 and is yet to be given candidate status, while Kosovo – whose status is disputed – has not yet applied for membership, and is classified as a "potential candidate."
Albania and North Macedonia – which solved its long-running naming dispute with neighbouring Greece in February 2019 to clear the way to EU and NATO membership – are now hoping to start EU accession negotiations after the talks had initially been vetoed by France in October last year.
“During this meeting, we had the opportunity… to re-state the European perspective for this region. This means that the continuation of reforms, particularly regarding rule of law, democratic values, and the fight against corruption and organised crime, must remain essential priorities,” European Council President Charles Michel, who chaired the summit, said after the meeting in press conference given by Michel, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and Croatia’s Prime Minister, Andrej Plenkovic.
The meeting was attended by heads of state and leaders of governments of all 27 EU member countries, while the six Western Balkan countries were represented by Albanian Prime Minister, Edi Rama, the Chairman of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, Sefik Dzaferovic, Kosovo President, Hashim Thaci, Montenegro President, Milo Djukanovic, Prime Minister of North Macedonia, Oliver Spasovski, and Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic.
The declaration also pledged mutual EU-Western Balkans support and solidarity during the Covid-19 crisis and its socio-economic consequences.
“The Western Balkans belongs in the EU and for us there is no question about it. This is why I believe the European Union has a special responsibility in assisting its partners in the region. This is particularly true regarding the impact of the coronavirus,” Von der Leyen said after the meeting.
The EU has approved a €3.3 billion aid package to help the region in combating the Covid-19 pandemic as well as to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on the economies of the six countries.
The aid package includes support for the health sector and the post-lockdown economic recovery, a €750 million package for micro-financing for small businesses, as well as a €1.7 billion assistance package secured by the European Investment Bank.
The six Western Balkan countries were also given access to programmes normally reserved for EU member states only, including the joint procurement of medical equipment, as well as securing fast flow of essential goods across borders.
As of Wednesday, there have been some 15,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in the region, including about 440 deaths. Serbia has been the worst affected country, with nearly 9,700 confirmed cases and 200 deaths.