German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Union officials met leaders of Western Balkan countries Thursday in Berlin to try to nudge them along the path of reforms that would bolster their chances of EU membership.
“The future of the Balkan states lies with the EU,” said German Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel in opening the summit, which was attended by eight Balkan leaders.
But Gabriel said the region’s governments also had to step up their reform efforts to improve competitiveness and the rule of law, as well as develop better infrastructure, if they were to have any chance of joining the 28-member Brussels-based bloc.
This would also help to promote investor confidence in the Balkans, said Gabriel, who is also German vice chancellor.
Attending the one day meeting were the leaders of Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia, along with former Yugoslav republics and current EU members Slovenia and Croatia.
The summit aimed to demonstrate the EU’s commitment to the Balkans after the region was moved down the bloc’s agenda by the crises in Ukraine and the Middle East.
Also in Berlin for the meeting was European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, along with the EU’s enlargement and energy commissioners, Stefan Fule and Guenther Oettinger.
This is the second time that Merkel has met the Balkans leaders in recent weeks; the first meeting was in Dubrovnik in July.
Another conference is planned for Vienna next year.
While all Western Balkan nations aspire to join the EU, membership is years away. Many of the region’s governments have not even started to introduce the political and economic reforms that are necessary to join the bloc.
Before they can make even the first moves on the long road to EU membership, analysts say the Balkan states also have to revamp their often chaotic and outmoded economies.
A number of long-running regional tensions also overshadow their membership hopes, notably Kosovo’s secession from Serbia.
Of all the Balkan states, Macedonia currently stands the best chance of launching membership talks with the EU in the coming years.
But even if Macedonia finally meets the conditions to join EU, its membership would still be blocked by neighbouring Greece, which claims the name Macedonia for its northern province.
Tensions from the region’s bloody wars during the 1990s continue to hamper improved relations between Serbia and Croatia.
Meanwhile, feuding between Bosnia-Herzegovina’s three major ethnic groups – Muslims (Bosniaks), Serbs and Croats – has delayed reform programmes as well as moves to shore up its fragile economy.
This, in turn, has fuelled concerns about Islamists gaining a foothold there.