The EU – Western Balkans Zagreb Summit held on 6 May reaffirmed the EU’s support towards the region to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, while highlighting the need for a continued commitment to EU values and reforms. At the same time, the leaders reiterated the region’s European perspective.
Solidarity and cooperation to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic
The EU leaders expressed their strong solidarity and cooperation with the Western Balkans partners in the context of the coronavirus crisis. High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell highlighted: “This is a time for solidarity, and it is a priority for the EU to support the Western Balkans, as part of our European family, in facing the impact of the pandemic.”
The EU swiftly mobilised a package of over € 3.3 billion to the benefit of the Western Balkans. This support will continue addressing the immediate health and resulting humanitarian needs of the COVID-19 pandemic and will help with the social and economic recovery of the region.
This co-operation includes joint procurement and the unrestricted trade-flow of protective personal equipment, ensuring the fast flow of essential goods through Green Lanes linking the EU and Western Balkans, the supply by the EU of testing material to check the correct functioning of coronavirus tests in the Western Balkans as well as close cooperation with relevant health institutions.
High Representative Josep Borrell said: “I am proud and moved to witness the extent of mutual solidarity between the EU, Member States and Western Balkan partners”.
The Western Balkans have assisted with the repatriation of EU citizens and helped them to return home. Additionally, medical teams from the Western Balkans provided assistance to Member States in need.
Reaffirming commitment to Western Balkans’ European perspective
The EU leaders once again reaffirmed the European perspective of the Western Balkans.
Recalling the 2018 Sofia Summit, when the Western Balkans partners reiterated their commitment to the European perspective as their firm strategic choice, High Representative Josep Borrell underlined the work invested in building a common EU-Western Balkans agenda. He addressed the Western Balkan leaders: I know you have a strong sense of belonging to the Europe that we are building together. As future EU members you also have a joint responsibility to help build a Europe that fulfils our shared values and our common interests”.
Commitment to EU values and reforms
The EU leaders expressed their determination to further intensify engagement at all levels to support the region’s political, economic and social transformation. They further encouraged the Western Balkans partners “to ensure that fundamental values, democratic principles and the rule of law are strictly upheld and implemented, including while special and extraordinary measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic are in place. The societal transformation and the effective implementation of reforms rest on these foundations. Civil society and independent and pluralistic media as well as freedom of expression and protection of journalists play a crucial role in the process of democratisation.”
Increased EU support will be linked to tangible progress in the rule of law and in socio-economic reforms, as well as to the Western Balkans partners’ adherence to EU values, rules and standards.
In this context, Western Balkans partners are encouraged to focus on the reforms related to rule of law, the functioning of democratic institutions and public administration.
Regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations
EU and Western Balkans leaders also addressed regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations. They recalled the positive examples of bilateral cooperation, such as the Prespa Agreement with Greece and the Treaty on Good Neighbourly Relations with Bulgaria, whose implementation remains important.
The leaders further highlighted the importance of reconciliation and regional stability, as well as of finding and implementing definitive, inclusive and binding solutions to partners’ bilateral disputes and issues rooted in the legacy of the past. In this regard, EU leaders welcomed the recent appointment of the EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and other Western Balkan regional issues.
HRVP Josep Borrell highlighted: “Delivering concrete results on the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue will be of paramount importance for Serbia and Kosovo and for the region as a whole. There is a lot of important work ahead. It is crucial to intensify engagement and accelerate progress. This is why I nominated Miroslav Lajcak, who was appointed EU Special Representative by our Member States, to focus full time on this work, and who will assist me in the EU facilitated Dialogue.” He further added “His appointment is a clear sign that we want the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo to be resolved, and more broadly, all the region’s bilateral issues to be settled before the Western Balkans join our Union. This is in the interest of the region, of the EU and of all our citizens.”
The EU and Western Balkans leaders further discussed a new phase of enhanced cooperation, once the immediate COVID-19 crisis is over. The leaders agreed to focus cooperation on the socio-economic impact of the crisis, boosting economies and competitiveness, the association of the region to the EU’s climate-related ambitions, furthering the digital economy and, strengthening connectivity in all its dimensions. At the same time, there will be special attention to the social development, and in particular on measures in the areas of health, education, social policy, and creating further opportunities for the youth.
Against this background, HRVP Josep Borrell stressed the crucial role of the Western Balkans in tackling global challenges and supporting the global agenda, not only as foreign policy allies but also more importantly as future EU members. For that purpose, regional cooperation is essential. He underlined:” A Western Balkans that leaves behind the conflicts and divisions of the past, and chooses instead to live and work together, will contribute to a stronger Europe, and a stronger European Union. This is in the interests of the region, of the EU and of the future of all our citizens.”