BERLIN (AP) — German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Thursday told leaders of six Balkan countries that aspire to join the European Union that “it is high time to overcome regional conflicts” and stand together as Russia wages war in Ukraine.
Leaders from Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania signed agreements on easing regional travel arrangements and on mutual recognition of academic and professional qualifications at a meeting with Scholz and the EU’s top officials in Berlin. And the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, announced a 1 billion-euro ($988 million) energy support package for the region.
Scholz highlighted the need to deliver on the countries’ longstanding desire to join the EU, which he said “is in our interest.”
But, with tension brewing again between Serbia and Kosovo this week, he said that the nations themselves need to overcome problems that have slowed their path to the EU and pointed to “a sense of urgency.”
“Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine forces us to stand together to preserve Europe’s freedom and security,” Scholz said. “It is high time to overcome regional conflicts that have continued for far too long — conflicts that divide you and hold your countries back on your European path.”
“The normalization process between Serbia and Kosovo in particular must speed up, so let’s get it done,” he added. Serbia doesn’t recognize its former province’s 2008 declaration of independence.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen urged Serbia and Kosovo to take advantage of a German-French proposal on their future relations, details of which haven’t been released, which she described as “a bridge that is being built to solve a problem that can be solved.”
Alongside regional reconciliation and cooperation, “the challenges of irregular migration, corruption and organized crime are crucial issues for all of us,” Scholz said, adding that the Balkan countries’ commitment to align visa policies with those of the EU is “essential in this context.”
Germany and others have been pushing Serbia in particular to tighten its entry policies as an increasing number of migrants have tried to reach wealthier western European countries via the Balkans in recent months.
After Thursday’s meeting, von der Leyen announced 1 billion euros in energy assistance to the western Balkan nations. Half of the grants will help support vulnerable households and businesses this winter. The rest are earmarked for investment in energy infrastructure, such as gas and electricity interconnectors.