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EU chief unveils new plan to support Western Balkans – POLITICO

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 Forum in Bratislava, the top EU leader said the bloc needed to do more to reach out to aspiring members in the region, unveiling a four-point plan to boost local growth. The Western Balkans have long been an area of ​​potential expansion for the EU, but accession efforts have stretched and stalled in many cases.

“We are finally realizing that it is not enough to wait for our friends outside the Union to come closer to us,” von der Leyen told a crowd of officials and oil-thinkers from across the continent. “We also have to take responsibility for bringing 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 increase 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 exchange of goods and payments,” she noted.

The EU has renewed its commitment to supporting Western Balkan countries since Russia invaded Ukraine, amid growing concerns among officials about Moscow’s influence 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 that are still on the way,” said von der Leyen.

Speaking just after von der Leyen, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, whose country officially started accession talks with the EU last July – 13 years after it first applied for EU membership – said welcomed the new pledges of support.

“Not only [do] we fully agree with what Ursula said, but we think this is a life or death issue for us, for all of us,” Rama said. “We have to get something more and something has to fundamentally change in the relationship between the European Union and the Western Balkans if they don’t want to see the Western Balkans come back again.”

Nevertheless, von der Leyen stressed that Western Balkan countries will also have to do their part to access new benefits.

“We want to offer the Western Balkans some of the benefits of membership in advance. But of course this also means that certain membership conditions must also be met in advance,” she said.

And, the president stressed, Europe needs to put more money on the table to help improve people’s lives and facilitate the integration process.

“We should”, she said, “increase the resources devoted to the Western Balkans”.

Nicolas Camut contributed reporting.


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