BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union and Balkans leaders are holding talks later Wednesday aimed at reassuring six countries in the volatile region that the EU remains their most important partner, particularly as the coronavirus ravages world economies.
Amid delays over the start of EU membership talks for Albania and North Macedonia, lingering tensions between Serbia and its former territory of Kosovo, and a perception that the EU was slow to help its Balkans partners cope with the virus, concern has mounted that Russia and China might take advantage.
The summit, starting at around 1430 GMT (10:30 a.m. EDT), had been billed as a highly symbolic event to be held in Croatia, which became an EU-Balkans success story when it joined the bloc in 2013. The country currently holds the bloc’s rotating presidency until June 30. Now, the summit will be held by video conference.
The talks will include leaders from countries called the “Balkan six:” Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.
With the coronavirus the focus of concern, any official talks about EU enlargement are now off the table. Instead, the EU will want to herald a “new phase of close cooperation” in light of the coronavirus, according to an organizational note released in Brussels.
An EU economic support package planned before the crisis is gone too, but European leaders will want to focus on 3.3 billion euros ($3.6 billion) in emergency coronavirus funding that it previously granted the six as it looks to burnish its credentials as a far more worthy partner to the region than Russia.
The Balkans six will be invited to affirm their European ambitions and recommit to democratic, political and economic reforms.
In a written statement to The Associated Press, North Macedonia’s Prime minister Oliver Spasovski acknowledged that that the coronavirus has raised “unforeseen challenges” for all.
“But it also brought something positive - it clearly showed that the European continent has a common destiny. The way we are dealing with the epidemic has shown that we share the same administrative, culture and other practices,” he wrote.
Konstantin Testorides in Skopje, North Macedonia, contributed to this report.
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