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EU reaches out to Balkans, under Trump's shadow

  • Published at 08:28 pm May 17th, 2018
BULGARIA-EU-SUMMIT-BALKANS-POLITICS
French President Emmanuel Macron, left, British Prime Minister Theresa May, centre, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel speak following a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of an EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia on May 17, 2018 AFP

In the summit declaration, the EU outlined the theme of 'connectivity' with investments in transport and infrastructure

European Union leaders anxious to counter Russian influence sought on Thursday to reassure Balkan states about their long-promised membership prospects, but warned they would not be joining any time soon.

EU leaders met their counterparts from six Balkan countries for summit talks in Sofia, a day after a dinner that sought to forge a united front in the face of US President Donald Trump's "capricious assertiveness" on the Iran nuclear deal and trade tariffs.

The bloc faces a dilemma over Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo - wanting to offer them enough to keep them out of Moscow's orbit without rushing to let them join before they carry out important reforms.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he wanted the countries, collectively referred to as the Western Balkans, to have a "supported dialogue, a perspective," but warned against hasty moves.

"I am not in favour of moving towards enlargement before we have all the required certainties and before genuine reform has been made," Macron told reporters as he arrived for the summit.

Macedonia, Greece name row

After suspending any enlargement four years ago, the European Commission recently unveiled a new strategy for the region which aims to give membership to some states by 2025 - the frontrunners to join are Montenegro and Serbia.

In return Brussels wants reforms and a crackdown on corruption in the region.

But the six countries are growing increasingly impatient for a path to membership. Bulgaria's prime minister recently warned Russia and China will otherwise gain toeholds in the region.

In the summit declaration, the EU outlined the theme of "connectivity" with investments in transport and infrastructure.

It restated the EU's "unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans" but avoided the terms "adhesion" or "enlargement" - EU code words for the path to membership of the bloc.

A European diplomatic source said objections to Balkan enlargement had come on two grounds: the need for the would-be members to reform and also the fractious state of the EU itself.

The EU is also wary of admitting new members before they settle their differences, particularly in a region still bedevilled by the aftermath of the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

These include a bitter and long-running dispute between Macedonia and EU-member Greece over its name, which Athens insists refers to its own northern province.

The leaders of Macedonia and Greece met on the sidelines of the summit.

Spain's prime minister is staying away because his country, roiled by the Catalan independence drive, does not recognise Kosovo's 2008 split from Serbia.