EU leaders have offered the Western Balkans access to the single market, contingent on swift reforms, marking a significant step towards integration while providing a huge economic incentive amidst the backdrop of Russia's Ukraine conflict.
European Union leaders have unveiled a growth plan for the six Western Balkans countries, offering them access to parts of the EU single market in exchange for substantial reforms, as a stepping stone to full EU membership.
The landmark announcement came during the annual Berlin Process summit held in Tirana, Albania.
The nations in the region are Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.
The meeting was attended by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel, as well as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Conditional investment and reform requirement
The EU single market, consisting of the 27 EU member states, facilitates the free movement of goods, services, capital, and people within its borders.
The EU has made it a requirement for Western Balkan countries to reform their economies and political institutions before joining, including by improving the regulatory structure for business, fighting corruption and stamping out organised crime.
Von der Leyen said on Monday that the EU’s new growth plan for those countries could allow them to enter portions of the EU single market on a case-by-case basis in return for demonstrated reforms.
The countries would be able to join the EU market in the areas of goods and services, road transport, energy, electricity, customs cooperation, e-commerce and cashless payments, “just to name a few,” von der Leyen said.
The new growth plan
The countries that comply swiftly with requested reforms would in turn receive investment, von der Leyen said. The Commission head said EU leaders have proposed a €6 billion investment package, €2 billion of grants and €4 billion of loans.
“Funds will be relieved upon delivery of reforms. So it is conditional,” von der Leyen said at the news conference at the end of the summit.
The EU has already mobilised €16 billion for investment in the region out of €30 billion pledged three years ago.
“We have to tap into the potential that is here in the Western Balkans and get it closer to the European single market,” von der Leyen said. By failing to move ahead with reforms, “the only one you can block is yourself,” she said.
A promising path forward
The six Western Balkan countries are at different stages of integration into the bloc.
Serbia and Montenegro launched membership negotiations a few years ago, followed by Albania and North Macedonia last year.
Bosnia is a candidate country but yet to open negotiations, while Kosovo is a potential candidate.
The EU is trying to reinvigorate the whole enlargement process, which has been stalled since 2013, when Croatia became the last country to join.