Leaders of the European Union and six Balkan states with hopes of entering the bloc will gather for an online summit on May 6 that has been overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic.
The first EU-Western Balkans summit in two years was originally meant to further align the six countries with Europe through economic incentives to encourage reforms.
But the meeting is now expected to avoid membership talks and focus on the socioeconomic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed nearly 140,000 people on the continent, eroded economic growth, and suppressed any appetite EU leaders have for enlargement.
“In the fight against COVID-19, the European Union and the Western Balkans are united,” Brussels said in a statement ahead of the summit with Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia.
The talks, which before the coronavirus pandemic were symbolically planned to be held in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, which is the EU’s newest member and currently holds the bloc’s rotating presidency, come as the EU tries to counter criticism that it was initially slow to help the Balkans handle the crisis.
The EU’s response stood in contrast to Russia and China, which widely publicized their quick delivery of shipments of masks and other gear.
In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vucic criticized the EU for a lack of solidarity at the start of the crisis while praising Russian and Chinese assistance.
The prospect of EU membership has incentivized difficult political and economic reforms in the Balkans, where Russia and China are trying to carve out influence.
But the EU seeks to make clear that Moscow and Beijing are not comparable partners.
A draft of the summit’s conclusions reportedly stresses that EU “support and cooperation goes far beyond what any other partner has provided to the region,” and that this “deserves public acknowledgement.”
“The summit itself is the message, to say: we want you to join,” a senior EU diplomat told Reuters. “But we will also say that you cannot pander to the Chinese and the Russians when it suits you.”
The Western Balkans have recorded some 500 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic, much less than the more than 75,000 deaths recorded by Spain, France, and Italy combined.
But the poor region’s economies are expected to suffer from the fallout of the pandemic as elsewhere in Europe.
The EU is highlighting 3.3 billion euros ($3.6 billion) it mobilized last week to help the Western Balkans deal with the coronavirus crisis, while noting it has provided decades of aid to the region.
On May 5 the EU approved another 750 million euros ($816 million) for the six countries as part of a larger 3-billion-euro ($3.25 billion) package to help 10 countries in its “neighborhood” cope with the virus.
“Enlargement and neighborhood countries are our closest partners. Now more than ever, it is absolutely essential that we stick together and show solidarity in addressing the economic and social impact of this global crisis,” Croatian Finance Minister Zdravko Maric said in announcing the financial aid.
Of the Western Balkan states, Serbia and North Macedonia have progressed the most toward eventual EU membership but are still years away.
Albania and North Macedonia, which after a frustrating delay last year were given the green light in March to formally start membership negotiations, are still waiting for a concrete start date.
Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina are still trying to earn candidate status.