Russia and China are trying to exert influence in the Western Balkans against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Tuesday.
“Will autocracies and the law of the strongest prevail? Or will democracy and the rule of law prevail?” von der Leyen said in Tirana as she arrived at the first summit of EU and Western Balkan leaders to take place in the region.
“This wrangling is also noticeable in the Western Balkans – Russia is trying to exert influence, China is trying to exert influence,” she said.
Albania, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo are part of the Western Balkans region. A decision to back a side faces each of them, von der Leyen said.
“(Are you) on the side of democracy – that is the European Union, your friend and partner – or do you want to take a different path?” she said, stressing that the EU is the region’s biggest investor.
Five out of six Western Balkans countries back the EU’s sanctions on Russia over its war on Ukraine, Serbia is yet to endorse the punitive measures.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic refuted claims that his country was too close to Russia arriving at the meeting.
“Serbia is an independent country. We are on our EU path, and that will remain so,” Vucic said.
Serbia alongside Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia have aspirations to join the bloc but have faced repeated delays in their accession process.
When Ukraine and Moldova were named official EU candidate countries in June, just four months after handing in their applications, some Western Balkans leaders gave free rein to their frustration.
Accession talks were formally launched with Albania and North Macedonia in July, after having first applied for membership in 2009 and 2004 respectively. Bosnia, which first applied in 2016, is however still waiting to be named an official candidate.
“I’m absolutely convinced that the future of our children will be safer and more prosperous with Western Balkans within the EU,” said European Council President Charles Michel.
Kosovo is to apply for membership of the EU by the end of the year, Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani said after EU countries recently backed visa-free travel for Kosovo from 2024, pending approval by the European Parliament.
Osmani stressed that Kosovo backs EU policies on foreign affairs and security matters, including “aligning on sanctions against Russia, as well as in rejecting every single malign influence of factors such as Russia and China.”
Other topics discussed by leaders include the region’s integration into the EU’s single market and high energy and food prices as a consequences of Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Last month the European Commission put forward a €1 billion ($1.05 billion) energy support package to help the Western Balkans countries tackle high prices and the region’s dependency on Russian fossil fuels.
EU and Western Balkans leaders signed a declaration on Tuesday morning to voluntarily start reducing mobile phone roaming charges with the prospect of suspending them altogether by 2027.
EU leaders are also expected to discuss irregular migration to the bloc.
Over 120,000 illegal border crossings were detected along the so-called Western Balkan route in the first 10 months of the year, a roughly 70% increase compared to last year, according to figures from Frontex, the EU’s border protection agency.
The Commission on Monday called on the region to step up border checks, deportations and visa requirements for non-EU nationals.
The commission hopes that fewer irregular migrants would arrive in the EU if Western Balkan countries stopped allowing third-country nationals – from countries requiring a visa to enter the bloc – to travel to the Western Balkans without a visa.
Tuesday’s summit, which is the first one to be held in a capital of the Western Balkans region, risked being overshadowed by regional conflicts.
Vucic participated in the meeting after he had threatened to abstain amid a row with neighbouring Kosovo over the appointment of a government minister in Pristina.
The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said on Tuesday morning that a new EU proposal to ease tensions between Kosovo and neighbouring Serbia was presented to the capitals.
Kosovo broke away from Serbia in 1999 and declared independence in 2008. Serbia has not recognized Kosovo’s independence and continues to lay claim to the territory. Most EU countries recognize Kosovo as a separate state.