Michael Gahler MEP, EPP Group Spokesman for Foreign Affairs, has issued a statement ahead of today’s EU-Western Balkans summit which takes place in the form of a video conference.
He said, “Do not lose sight of the geopolitical consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Western Balkans must not fall into the Russian disinformation trap. The region has a better future with the EU”.
“Europeans must turn this crisis into an opportunity and mitigate the impact of the pandemic together”, Gahler continued. The EU plans to help the Western Balkans with €3.3 billion to fight COVID-19 in the region.
“In these challenging times, it is very important that we stand beside the whole of the Western Balkans. Solidarity is key now. The financial package for the region to address the COVID-19 outbreak and its consequences, which Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi announced, is definitely a positive development”, said Kinga Gál MEP, who negotiated a parliamentary report about the Western Balkans on behalf of the EPP Group.
Today, EU leaders will also confirm the plan to start EU membership talks. “It is very important to reinforce the prospect of EU enlargement for these countries. The decision to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia is a step in the right direction”, stressed Gál.
“It is time for unity. The start of formal EU accession talks is about nothing less than defending our way of life and influence in the world. The EU is a reliable and transparent partner”, said Gahler.
The EPP Group praised the role of Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, whose country holds the rotating Presidency of the Council. “Prime Minister Plenković’s personal commitment was instrumental in putting the Western Balkans among EU priorities”, underlined Gál.
As a sign of their commitment to the enlargement process, the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament will host this week, together with the Party of European Socialists, a high-level online meeting with sister parties from the Western Balkans.
Participants will include party leaders and heads of state or government on the Western Balkans’ side, as well as the EP president David Sassoli, and High Representative Josep Borrell on the European side, together with the S&D leader Iratxe García Pérez and the PES president Sergei Stanishev, who will co-host the event, and a few prominent S&D members dealing with this region.
Ahead of the event, the S&D leader Iratxe García Pérez said: “By organising this meeting, we want to send a strong signal of support to all Western Balkan countries wishing to join the EU.
“Opening the negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia was the right decision, and we were pushing for it for two reasons. The first one, because the European family is not complete without the Western Balkans. Secondly, because the EU institutions demanded a lot from both countries over the past years, and they delivered. Now, an intense process of social, political and economic reforms starts until we reach the final goal of integration. I hope that this process will also encourage Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina to continue the path of reforms, until the European family is complete.”
S&D vice-president responsible for foreign affairs, Kati Piri, said: “The future of the Western Balkans remains within a strong and united European Union. And we expect from the European governments a re-confirmation of this goal during the summit tomorrow. But as much as we are a pro-enlargement Group, we believe in the condition “sine qua non” that the countries wishing to join the EU show true commitment to the agreed criteria. We are seeing some worrying trends in the region and want to make clear that there can be no compromise – especially not on democracy, the rule of law, organised crime, and freedom of media.”
“At the same time, the enlargement process must put a greater emphasis on social-economic convergence between the countries of the region and the EU. This is the best way to tackle social dumping, reduce brain drain and provide opportunities for the young. Now this is even more important as the current crisis will undoubtedly also impact the economies in the Western Balkans.”
“Tonino Picula, S&D coordinator in the foreign affairs committee, and the EP rapporteur on enlargement in the Western Balkans, added: “After years of ‘enlargement fatigue’, we have recently seen a breakthrough in progress with the decision to open accession talks with Tirana and Skopje. The EU also showed solidarity and agreed on a solid financial support package to help Western Balkan countries fight the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences. Now, to really speed up the reform process and promote change in candidate countries, the member states should start negotiations as soon as possible.”
“20 years after the 2000 Zagreb summit, our engagement and commitment towards the European future of the Western Balkans should remain a priority for the Union. In the turbulent times we are living in, let’s keep in mind that enlargement is the most effective foreign policy instrument the EU has to promote our values, peace, democracy, fairness, and prosperity.”