The EU faced a near boycott the last time it tried to gather Western Balkan countries in Brussels, when three leaders, led by Serbia’s Aleksandar Vučić, threatened not to come. This time, Brussels is going to them, anxious not to lose the region to Russian and Chinese sway.
All 27 EU leaders will travel to Albania’s capital on Tuesday for a one-day gathering to make their case, marking the first time an EU-Western Balkans summit is being held in the region. The shifting location, said one senior EU official centrally involved in the planning, “represents a new dynamism in our relations.”
All six non-EU attendees — Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia — are at different stages in their bids to join the bloc. And they’re united in one regard — frustration with the slow pace of their journey.
The enlargement process has effectively stalled since Romania and Bulgaria joined in 2007, with many western members lamenting that recent joiners like Hungary and Poland are simply flouting EU standards on rule of law and democracy.
But Russia’s attempt to conquer Ukraine has breathed new life into EU expansion, refocusing Europe’s attention on its own backyard. One realization: The reluctance to expand east has growing geopolitical consequences, creating a vacuum that Russia and China are already moving to fill.
“Due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, EU enlargement is back,” said Ivan Vejvoda, a Balkans specialist with the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. “It has jolted the EU out of complacency, even though Russia and indeed Chinese interference in the region was present in various ways before the invasion.”
Russia and China activate
Russia has long held sway in a region where it has strong historical ties.
Serbia, by far the biggest Western Balkans country, has perhaps the tightest links to Moscow. The two countries held joint military exercises near Serbia’s capital Belgrade last year and Russia has provided the country with MiG-29 fighter jets.
President Vučić has also resisted pressure to align with EU sanctions against Moscow and continues to import all of Serbia’s gas from Russia. Meanwhile, Serbia’s major oil company, NIS, is majority-owned by Russian energy giant Gazprom.
But Serbia has also managed to tread a fine line by censuring Russia when necessary. For instance, it backed a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning Moscow’s use of fraudulent referendums in eastern Ukraine as a pretext for attempted annexation.
China’s activity in the region is also a growing concern for the EU amid a reassessment of the bloc’s relationship with the world’s second-largest economy. In recent years, Beijing has made inroads in the Western Balkans under its massive Belt and Road investment program, offering an attractive alternative to countries tired of waiting in the EU wings.
Evidence of China’s deep pockets is scattered around the Western Balkans.
Montenegro is struggling to repay a Chinese loan it took out in 2014 to help finance a controversial highway project that remains unfinished — a telling symbol of the trade-offs involved in Chinese investment.
In Serbia, China Rail International (CRI) and the China Communications Construction Company began work on the €1 billion Belgrade-Budapest railway last year, while China’s Hesteel Group acquired Serbian iron producer Zelezara Smederevo in 2016.
In total, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) estimates that China has been involved in 136 major regional projects, amounting to over €32 billion between 2009 and 2021.
“China is playing the long game,” said Goran Buldioski, who follows Beijing’s influence in the region as director of programs for Open Society–Europe and Central Asia.
“They bring not only money and investment, but also a lot of challenges when it comes to negotiations with the EU,” he added, noting that China’s money comes without the EU’s anti-corruption and environmental standards.
The EU responds
A fear of ceding influence to malign actors like China and Russia is helping sharpen minds as EU leaders gather in Tirana.
Among the items on Tuesday’s agenda is fighting foreign information manipulation and improving cybersecurity, amid growing awareness that the EU is losing the communications battles when it comes to selling its story to Western Balkan countries.
Kremlin-aligned media like Russia’s Sputnik have helped drive a pro-Russian narrative in the region. Drowned out is the EU’s attempt to convey that it is by far the region’s biggest investor and trade partner, responsible for about 70 percent of the Western Balkans’ trade.
A poll this summer found that 51 percent of Serbians would vote against EU membership in a referendum, while 40 percent of respondents rated Russian leader Vladimir Putin highly.
Still, the last few months have seen progress in the EU-Western Balkans relationship. EU countries last week agreed to let Kosovo citizens travel visa-free throughout the EU starting in 2024. And this past summer, EU leaders decided to launch accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, three years after French President Emmanuel Macron blocked such a move.
Tuesday’s summit is also expected to produce more results.
An agreement on easing roaming charges will be signed, a follow-up on an announcement made last year.
The EU is also expected to report further progress on education programs to tackle what is seen as a “brain drain” from the region (for example, Albania has seen a wave of young men leaving the country for Britain this year).
Leaders will also discuss the EU’s new common purchasing platform for gas, meant to lower sky-high prices. The mechanism has been opened to Western Balkans members to help lure them away from Russian fossil fuel.
But Brussels will also want something in return.
Alignment with Europe’s foreign and security policy is among the key objectives of Tuesday’s meeting, officials said.
The EU is also demanding more commitments from Serbia to align its visa policies with those of the EU, following a surge in migrants entering the EU this year via the Western Balkans. Serbia currently allows visa-free travel from places like India, Tunisia and Burundi, but it also enjoys a visa-free travel arrangement with the EU, making it easier for these migrants to cross into the EU.
As one EU official put it ahead of the summit, “solidarity works both ways.”