Ukraine, Kosovo, security on agenda at Open Balkan summitReading Time: 4 minutes
European Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi said the EU’s EUR 29bn investment package for the Western Balkans “has the potential to transform the region and boost its economy to a level of prosperity never seen before”, at the official opening of the Open Balkan Summit in Belgrade on Friday.
A functioning Common Regional Market is also key to maximising the benefits of EU support to your economies and to realise the full potential of the Economic and Investment Plan, Varhelyi said.
He called the agreement reached last week on the free movement between Serbia and Kosovo “a sign of hope that the Open Balkans may soon be implemented in the whole region”.
The Open Balkan initiative was launched in 2019 as an attempt to create a shared economic region across the Western Balkans, and currently includes three member states: Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia, and three prospective members: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo.
However Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina, neither of which are NATO members, have called the initiative a poor substitute for the EU, which they believe offers better security and benefits.
At the summit, the three member countries were represented by their national leaders: Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, North Macedonia Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who invited Turkey, Greece, Italy and Hungary to join the initiative.
In attendance as observers were Montenegrin Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic, who has expressed some enthusiasm about joining the initiative, and Bosnia-Herzegovina Chairman Zoran Tegeltija.
Kosovan Prime Minister Albin Kurti did not attend, as with the previous summit in June, when he called the Open Balkan initiative “a harmful regional initiative with no vision”, adding that “Kosovo does not want to join in because Serbia is not treating it as an equal side and independent country.”
Vucic was more bullish regarding the regional initiative, saying “we have solved all our bilateral problems with (North) Macedonia, we are trying to settle open issues with Montenegro,” but also asked rhetorically “how many years have Macedonia and Albania been waiting for accession negotiations with the EU?”
Rama argued that the disputes between Serbia and Kosovo regarding car registration plates and identity cards could have been solved at the summit. “If Kosovo joined the initiative, the August problem would have been solved through Open Balkan,” he told Euronews Serbia.
Slovenian president flags Serbian position on Ukraine
Slovene President Borut Pahor told reporters that he does not support Serbia’s decision not to impose sanctions on Russia, but is trying to understand it, after meeting with Vucic on Saturday.
“As a friend of this region, I support the Open Balkans initiative and congratulate Vucic and his colleagues for the progress in that initiative. It is one of the few constructive initiatives for connection and cooperation in the region,” Pahor said.
He also emphasized that he would like all countries that want to join the EU to support the sanctions against Russia, “which would be an expression of credibility and trustworthiness for the vast majority of countries in the EU”.
“I think that a greater and more determined will of Brussels to include the Western Balkan countries in the EU more quickly would contribute to that eventual decision,” said Pahor and added that, “if there was a 100% European future, there would certainly be more thought about sanctions, not just about condemning aggression”.
Pahor also pointed out that the EU’s Berlin process will restart in the second half of this year, “which has a lot in common with the ‘Open Balkans’ initiative”.
Hungarians emphasise EU’s role in West Balkan region
Varhelyi recommended that the Open Balkans programme “has to be a step on the path to European integration”, and “in line with European standards”. He underlined that “EU standards must be at the heart of the initiative” and said “I am ready to help you ensure that actions undertaken in the framework are on the right path and brings you even faster within the EU.”
Varhelyi’s compatriot, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, speaking on the sidelines of the summit, said “the European integration of the Western Balkans would contribute to increased security in the EU”.
He claimed that “the war in Ukraine and its effect on energy supplies has created a situation in Europe that could lead to a ‘catastrophic weakening of the EU’”.
“We must make it clear that enlargement policy must be the most important policy of the EU… Europe is in dire need of the Balkans,” he said, adding that enlarging the European common market to the Western Balkans would “help an ailing European economy”.
Hundreds of millions of people could face starvation, leading to further waves of migration. “To avoid a scenario which we saw in 2015, we need action coordinated with Western Balkan countries,” he said. On the subject of energy security, Szijjarto called the Turkish Stream pipeline “the only safe transit”.
Meanwhile, Szijjarto said the Hungarian government is ready to build closer cooperation with the Open Balkan members to promote the security of energy and food supplies.