EU pledges funds to Western Balkans, but no firm promises in Sofia

Council President Donald Tusk (C) with Commission counterpart Jean-Claude Juncker (R) and Bulgarian PM Boyko Borissov. [European Council]

The European Union pledged fresh funds for the Western Balkans on Thursday (17 May) to help its transport and digital infrastructure, renewable energy and education efforts. It also agreed to work closely on “security challenges”. But talk of further EU enlargement remained elusive.

Earlier hailed as a game changer for the six Western Balkan countries, meant to anchor them further en route towards EU membership, the two-day summit in Sofia was hijacked by foreign policy issues – the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the threat of a trade war with Washington.

The six countries – Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia – received less encouragement than they had hoped for of the EU’s renewed commitment to the region.

Western Balkans remain in standby mode

EU members want to take their time with a new round of enlargement – something that the Western Balkans summit this Thursday (17 May) in Sofia is unlikely to change. EURACTIV Germany’s partner Der Tagesspiegel reports.

“This summit has allowed us to forge even closer links with our friends from the Western Balkans who, step by step, each day come a little bit closer to the European Union – each at its own pace and merits,” European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said.

In financial terms, the EU pledged to provide grants for an additional 11 high-priority transport projects worth €190 million, primarily for two motorways. “This investment can leverage up to €1 billion in loans from international financing institutions,” it said in a statement.

More funding for the Erasmus Plus programme was also mentioned, however, former Bulgarian minister Ivailo Kalfin told broadcasters that “this is a decision already taken at the level of the EU”.

In order to develop the new Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans, the EU has also earmarked €30 million for investments in broadband roll-outs across the region. Another project is to reduce mobile roaming fees both within the region and with the EU.

Gabriel to present plan in May to slash mobile roaming fees with Western Balkans

Mariya Gabriel, the European Commissioner in charge of digital policies, will announce a plan to get rid of mobile fees between the EU and Western Balkan countries at a May 2018 summit in Bulgaria.

However, in political terms, there was little to write home about, other than to “confirm the European perspective of the region”.

European Council President Donald Tusk explained the Balkan’s complexity by referring to Bulgarian PM Boyko Borissov’s point that the combined GDP of all six countries equals that of Slovakia, so they could be easily absorbed by the bloc.

However, “after more than 25 visits I made to the region, I should say that GDP and demography show it shouldn’t be a big problem, but when we compare this region to other parts of the world, we can say that when it comes to troubles per capita, Western Balkans are bigger than Germany and France together”.

The region started implementing economic and political reforms only after the end of ethnic wars of the 1990s, missing out on two EU enlargement waves in 2004 and 2007. Only Croatia managed to join the bloc, in 2013.

Croatia accelerates plans for joining the eurozone

Croatia’s government began to think in earnest about joining the eurozone on Thursday (10 May) when it adopted a new strategy that targets switching to the single currency within five to seven years. But opposition forces claim that it is not in Croatia’s best interests.

Georgi Gotev and Sam Morgan contributed to this article.

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