Scholz backs giving ‘realistic chance’ to Western Balkans on EU bid

By Sarah Marsh

BERLIN (Reuters) – German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has pledged to help the Western Balkans revive their long-running drive to join the European Union, a move aimed at easing regional tensions and fending off the influence of rival powers such as than Russia.

Speaking alongside Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti in Pristina at the start of a two-day trip, Scholz said his government had made their EU membership a priority and would also support Kosovo’s aspiration to liberalization of European visas.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given a new sense of urgency to the need to bring Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo closer to the EU in 27, whether through full membership or an alternative community.

“It is very important to send a new signal of confidence and hope that this accession process is very seriously wanted by the EU, and that it also has a realistic chance if everyone makes an effort “Scholz said.

Ukraine and neighboring Moldova have been pushing to fast-track their own EU membership bids since the invasion, raising the question of whether their membership should be fast-tracked or should wait their turn after Western Balkan countries .

EU countries, including Germany, have said there can be no shortcuts to Ukraine’s membership.

“We are also in favor of Ukraine’s accession to the EU. Of course, Ukraine has all the attention and it is in the hearts of everyone who wants peace and democracy because there is a terrible war going on there, an unprovoked and unjustified war,” said Kurti.

“But I think there has to be both (to join the EU), Ukraine and the Western Balkans,” Kurti said.

Scholz’s visit follows that of European Council President Charles Michel and before the EU-Western Balkans leaders’ summit on June 23.

The prospect of EU membership was for years the main driver of reform and greater cooperation in the region after a decade of war and upheaval in the 1990s, until the expansion of the EU is bogged down, breeding disillusionment.

Unresolved conflicts have recently given rise to new tensions there, such as the secession plans of the pro-Russian Bosnian Serbs.

“The fact that this hasn’t happened is a real problem and the growing influence of other countries like Russia and China is the result of this process which is not developing,” said Florian Bieber, an expert on Balkans at the Austrian University of Graz.

Visa liberalization would be a boon for Kosovo, which remains the only Balkan country where citizens still need visas to travel to the Schengen area without an EU passport. An applicant needs weeks or months just to get an appointment at an embassy.

SCREAM ALONG

“We will not abandon this region in the heart of Europe to the influence of Moscow,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said during her visit to the Western Balkans in March.

The question is whether the Scholz government, which took office in December, is capable of coming up with a real strategy to move the process forward or whether it will simply “get confused” like former Chancellor Angela Merkel, who professed support for the region but did little to change the dynamic, Bieber said.

Scholz will travel first to Kosovo and then to Serbia on Friday, after meeting with the leaders of both countries last month in Berlin.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was also due to visit Serbia this week, which is trying to balance its European aspirations with its centuries-old alliance with the Kremlin. But his visit was canceled when neighboring countries closed their airspace.

The German Chancellor is due to travel to Thessaloniki in Greece later for a dinner with representatives of the South East European Cooperation Process (SEECP), a regional Balkan body made up of 12 countries.

On Saturday, he will travel to North Macedonia and Bulgaria, which are embroiled in a dispute preventing the start of accession talks for the former country.

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh in Berlin; Additional reporting by Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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