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EU seeks to reassure Western Balkans on accession amid fears of Russian influence

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European Union and Western Balkans leaders met in the Albanian capital Tirana on Tuesday for a summit meant to reassure the region of a future in the bloc amid fears of rising Russian and Chinese influence, according to Reuters. 

The leaders of the six Balkan countries of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia have long expressed disillusion that negotiations have not started or are stalled, years after being promised eventual EU membership.

While reluctance over further enlarging the EU is rife among member states, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has pushed them to focus more energy on bringing the region closer to the bloc.

“I am absolutely convinced that the future of our children will be safer and more prosperous with the Western Balkans within the EU and we are working very hard to make progress,” EU Council chief Charles Michel said at the start of the meeting.

In a concrete step towards integration, telecommunications operators from the EU and the Western Balkans leaders signed a deal at the start on the summit on a cut in data roaming charges from Oct. 2023.

While some of the Balkans leaders welcomed that step, they stressed they wanted more.

“Kosovo will be submitting its application for EU membership by the end of this year,” its president, Vjosa Osmani-Sadriu, said, adding that she hopes an EU summit next week will approve visa liberalization for Kosovo.

Meanwhile, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo hinted that the path to accession will still be long for Western Balkan countries.

“We know that there is progress, we know that there is an ambition to make this progress work faster … but there is no shortcut,” he said.

EU leaders will also push their Balkans counterparts to be more forceful in implementing EU standards such as the rule of law, gender equality and the fight against corruption, while aligning with EU policies such as the sanctions on Russia.