EU and Western Balkans leaders on the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the region’s prospects for EU membership
Today, a videoconference of EU and Western Balkans leaders took place which was co-chaired by President of the European Council Charles Michel, Croatian prime minister Andrej Plenković and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen.
The clear support for the region’s prospects for EU membership, affirmed their strong solidarity with the Western Balkans in connection with its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences, and took a stand for the strengthening of the economic and social cooperation between the EU and the region. Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša also participated in the videoconference.
The leaders emphasised the importance of close cooperation in facing common challenges posed by the pandemic. The EU very quickly adopted a financial assistance package exceeding EUR 3.3 billion for immediate aid to the healthcare sector, especially for the procurement of medical equipment and support to the social and economic restoration of the region. The assistance and cooperation between the two parties is much stronger than what the region was offered by other partners and is something that deserves to be recognised publicly.
The leaders also supported the importance of the Western Balkans' commitment to European values and principles, such as democracy, the rule of law, fight against corruption and organised crime, respect for human rights, gender equality, and rights of minorities, and highlighted the importance of the fulfilment of reform commitments in key areas. They also advocated for the strengthening of the cooperation in tackling disinformation and hybrid activities, especially from countries that want to undermine the Western Balkans’ prospects for EU membership.
Prime Minister Janez Janša welcomed the videoconference as it is important to remain in close contact and exchange information despite the pandemic. The virus poses challenges that do not discriminate between EU Member States and other European countries. To make Europe stronger and more resilient, close coordination is necessary not only during the pandemic but also in the resolution stages and later in the stage of economic restoration.
Prime Minister Janša made three observations:
1. The EU did not turn its back on the Western Balkan countries during the pandemic. He welcomed the mobilisation of more than EUR 3.3 billion for the region. The funds must be used wisely, both in the fight against the crisis itself and for post-crisis restoration. It should be noted that many Member States, including Slovenia, donated medical equipment or offered other kinds of assistance to countries in the region on a bilateral basis. However, the EU should also recognise the support extended to Member States by the Western Balkan countries. He highlighted the fast flow of basic goods via green lanes connecting the EU and the Western Balkans, and the supply of testing materials by the EU allowing the Western Balkan countries to oversee the testing process. Furthermore, he called attention to the mutual assistance in citizen repatriation and the close cooperation between the competent health and police services. All this mutual support and cooperation go beyond the assistance that the Western Balkans could receive from any other faraway partner. This deserves public recognition both within the EU and in the Western Balkan countries.
2. The region's socio-economic development and its integration in the EU are of paramount importance for Europe as a continent. Despite the ongoing crisis, we must seek political, economic, legal and social convergences. The enlargement process must continue with an enhanced methodology without any further delay. Responsible ownership of the reform process by the political leaders in the region is crucial.
3. Young people in the region need a future that would give them reasonable and productive opportunities in their home countries. But, for this to happen, the EU must focus on ensuring the appropriate conditions that will make this possible. Such measures must go beyond expanding the existing Erasmus+ scholarship programme.
The Prime Minister concluded that, despite all the challenges, the EU must continue to be well-coordinated and actively involved in the region. Both the European Commission and the High Representative of the EU for Foreign and Security Policy, with which Slovenia will work closely as it prepares for its presidency of the Council of the EU, play an important role in this context.