Western Balkan leaders discuss virus impacts, EU membership

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Government leaders and officials from six Western Balkan nations met for a virtual summit Wednesday to discuss how to prevent and address economic stagnation and social impacts from the coronavirus pandemic that could derail or delay national efforts to join the European Union.

The summit hosted by the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank based in Washington, gathered presidents, prime ministers and government ministers from Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.

“They agreed to accelerate free movement of goods, services, capital, and people in the region, eliminating barriers that have hindered economic growth; and to pursue an investment plan to attract new foreign direct investment in the region and accelerate the deployment of committed COVID-19 recovery funds, with a focus on infrastructure and energy,” a concluding statement from the meeting said.

The Western Balkans have had 61,862 confirmed virus cases and 1,729 deaths from the pandemic so far, according to a tally by John Hopkins University researchers. The economic fallout from nationwide lockdowns will cause gross domestic product in the region to drop 8% this year, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has estimated.

The Western Balkan countries are at different stages of the EU membership process. They have started an initiative – dubbed “Little Schengen” after the EU’s visa-free travel zone – to promote closer economic ties.

The International Monetary Fund and the EBRD estimate that regional GDP could rise by more than 10% through regional cooperation that allows for the freedom of movement of people, goods, services and capital.

“If we resolve all our problems, we shall be more respected from the EU. We are all very small. We can’t reach anything alone. Together we can get anything,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said.

The six Balkan countries agreed to prepare an action plan to consider at their next summit in Sofia, Bulgaria planned for November.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama recommended the region’s leaders meet online monthly to review their progress in promoting the freer flow of people, products and funding across their borders, one of the conditions for EU membership. .

“The faster we are able to implement these freedoms in our own physical space, the better it will be in terms of people’s lives, in facing even the challenge we have to cope with during this pandemic,” said Rama.

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