The summit marked the centre piece of Bulgaria’s EU Council presidency, with the aim to inject new energy in the EU-Western Balkans relationship and reaffirm the EU’s commitment towards its Western Balkans partners.
The Commission announced a new package of measures which will boost connectivity within the region and with the EU, in particular through the Western Balkans investment framework. In addition, partners committed to the digital agenda for the Western Balkans to support the move of the Western Balkans towards a digital economy.
A decision is due to be taken in June on whether to open talks with Albania and Macedonia, but there was no mention of this in the final communication.
Bulgarian MEP Angel Dzhambazski, who heads the ECR group’s Western Balkans policy group, said the summit showed that “more needs to be done to advance cooperation between the EU and the Western Balkans, and in some countries’ cases, continue on the path to EU membership.”
On Friday, the MEP said, “The EU needs to do all it can to offer a prosperous, stable, and open future partnership for the region, so that Western Balkan nations want to turn towards the EU and the West rather than the East.
“We welcome the summit and its aims but we must not lose momentum in what we are trying to achieve, which for some countries in the Western Balkans means EU membership sooner rather than later.
“Of course, the summit wasn’t just about meeting the European Commission’s criteria for EU membership or opening accession talks, but about identifying where we have common challenges, and where we can find common solutions.
“Western Balkan nations should also give their strong commitment to put in place mechanisms to end corruption in order for sustainable and prosperous democracy to flourish.”
Further reaction came from European Council President Donald Tusk, who said it was “a very good and fruitful” summit, adding, “This is the best illustration that the integration with the Western Balkans is a top priority for the EU.
“We reaffirmed our mutual commitment to the European perspective for the whole region and the EU is and will remain the most reliable partner of the entire Western Balkans.
“In very concrete terms we discussed how to improve connections with and within the Western Balkans region. We are speaking about human, economic, digital and infrastructure connections.
The package of measures we signed a while ago - the so-called ‘Sofia priority agenda’ - adds new initiatives to our current cooperation.”
However, French President Emmanuel Macron, who attended the summit, said he was sceptical over the countries of the Western Balkans joining the EU in the near future.
While he said that he was in “favour of anchoring the Balkans in Europe and moving toward Europe,” he stressed that the EU needed “to look at any new enlargement with a lot of prudence and rigour. What we’ve seen over the past 15 years is a path that has weakened Europe every time we think of enlarging it.
“And I don’t think we do a service to the candidate countries or ourselves by having a mechanism that in a way no longer has rules and keeps moving toward more enlargement.
This comes as German Chancellor Angela Merkel also spoke out against a concrete timetable for candidate states’ road to accession to the EU by 2025, saying, “I am no fan of this target date, because accession needs to be based on actual progress.”
Another of those present, European Parliament President Antoni Tajani, said, “The countries of the Western Balkans are inextricably linked to the EU by geography, history and economy.”
The Italian added, “They are already within our borders and the Union cannot be complete without them. In my missions to the Balkans, I stressed the importance of giving these countries a secure European perspective, for the stability, security and prosperity of the entire area. It is in the interests of all of us in Europe to anchor the future of the Western Balkans firmly to the Union’s. That is why we must make it clear that the Western Balkans EU accession process is irreversible.
“The integration process must be supported, including through financial means, by the development of network infrastructures that are essential for interconnection and trade between these countries and the EU. To this end, the next EU budget must include a fund to stimulate investment in the Western Balkans.”