BRATISLAVA — European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday announced a new plan to bring the Western Balkans closer to the EU.
Speaking at the GLOBSEC Bratislava Forum, the EU’s top executive said the bloc needs to do more to reach out to aspiring members in the region, unveiling a four-point blueprint to boost local growth. The Western Balkans has long been a potential expansion area for the EU, but accession efforts have become drawn out and stalled in many cases.
“We finally realize that it is not enough to just wait for our friends outside the Union to move closer to us,” von der Leyen told a crowd of officials and think tankers from across the Continent. “We must also take responsibility to bring the aspiring members of our Union much closer to us.”
The plan, according to von der Leyen, would include efforts to further align the Western Balkans with the EU’s single market, deepen regional economic integration, accelerate judicial and anti-corruption reforms, and boost pre-accession funding.
“The Western Balkans could join our digital single market in areas such as e-commerce and cybersecurity,” the president said. “We could facilitate our trade in goods and payments,” she noted.
The EU has rededicated itself to supporting Western Balkan countries since Russia invaded Ukraine, as officials grow increasingly concerned about Moscow’s sway in the region.
“I want our single market to be a driver of change, not only for countries that have already joined the family but also for those who are still on their way,” von der Leyen argued.
Speaking right after von der Leyen, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, whose country formally started accession talks with the EU last July — 13 years after first applying for EU membership — welcomed the new pledges of support.
“Not only [do] we fully agree with what Ursula said, but we think that this is a death-or-life problem for us, for all of us,” Rama said. “We have to get something more and something has to fundamentally change in the relations between the European Union and Western Balkans if they don’t want to see Western Balkans go back again.”
Nevertheless, von der Leyen underscored that Western Balkan countries will also have to do their part in order to access new benefits.
“We want to offer to the Western Balkans some of the advantages of membership in advance. But of course, this also means that certain requirements of membership also have to be met in advance,” she said.
And, the president emphasized, Europe needs to put more money on the table in order to help improve people’s lives and smooth the integration process.
“We should,” she said, “increase the resources dedicated to the Western Balkans.”
Nicolas Camut contributed reporting.