EU-Western Balkans summit in Tirana
Members of special forces keep watch ahead of the EU-Western Balkans summit in Tirana, Albania, December 6, 2022. Reuters

European Union and Western Balkans leaders met in the Albanian capital Tirana on Tuesday for a summit meant to reassure the region of a future in the wealthy bloc amid fears of rising Russian and Chinese influence.

The leaders of the six Balkan countries of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia have long expressed disillusion that negotiations have not started or are stalled, years after being promised eventual EU membership.

While reluctance over further enlarging the EU is rife among member states, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has pushed them to focus more energy on bringing the region closer to the bloc.

"I am absolutely convinced that the future of our children will be safer and more prosperous with the Western Balkans within the EU and we are working very hard to make progress," EU Council chief Charles Michel said at the start of the meeting.

In a concrete step towards integration, telecommunications operators from the EU and the Western Balkans leaders signed a deal at the start on the summit on a cut in data roaming charges from Oct. 2023.

While some of the Balkans leaders welcomed that step, they stressed they wanted more.

"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 an EU summit next week will approve visa liberalisation for Kosovo.

Meanwhile, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo hinted that the path to accession will still be long for Western Balkan countries.

"We know that there is progress, we know that there is an ambition to make this progress work faster ... but there is no shortcut," he said.


Old tensions within the region were also clear as Kosovo's president criticised Serbia's attitude and said Kosovo was "100% aligned" with EU views.

"Whether you stand with Ukraine today or you stand with Russia should matter, whether you have sanctions against Russia or not should matter," Osmani-Sadriu said.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said as he arrived at the summit: "Is Serbia too close to Russia? Serbia is an independent country." Serbia, he said is "on the EU path and that will remain so," but also needs to defend its own interests.

The EU's aim is to give greater stability to a region that emerged from the break-up of Yugoslavia and the ethnic wars of the 1990s but is still racked by tensions.

But moves towards closer integration are also designed to deny Moscow a gateway for causing trouble at what is seen as a soft spot on the 27-nation EU's southeastern flank.

Serbia in particular, which was bombed by NATO two decades ago, has long struggled to balance historically close ties with Russia against aspirations for integration with the West.

"At a time when European security environment is challenged by Russia, it's very important we have a common table where we can discuss these matters," Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin said.

EU leaders will also push their Balkans counterparts to be more forceful in implementing EU standards such as the rule of law, gender equality and the fight against corruption, while aligning with EU policies such as the sanctions on Russia.

At the same time, the EU has been working hard to plug what it sees as loopholes in the visa regimes of several Balkans countries that have helped boost the number of migrants crossing into the bloc.

Meanwhile Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama stressed it was important that an EU-Western Balkans summit was held in the region for the first time.

"It is very strong sign of awareness of the EU that the EU needs the Western Balkans as much as the Western Balkans needs the EU," he said, while adding that holding the summit in Tirana helped make it "rock and roll ... it's far less boring than Brussels."