Spanish PM Sanchez opens Balkan tour with visit to Serbia

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Spain’s prime minister on Friday kicked off a tour of the Western Balkans with a visit to Serbia, offering his country’s support for the integration of the volatile region into the European Union.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez held talks with Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade ahead of his visits to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania in the coming days.

The Balkan nations are all in different stages of the EU accession process. EU officials have recently sought to encourage governments in the region to move on with reforms amid concerns over Russia’s efforts to boost its influence in the Balkans.

Serbia remains a rare European country that has kept friendly ties with Russia despite its invasion of Ukraine and refused to join Western sanctions against Russia.

Sanchez said the war in Ukraine has prompted the EU to rethink its enlargement policies and open its doors to countries in Eastern Europe — Ukraine and Moldova recently formally became membership candidates — and the Western Balkans.

Sanchez said his tour seeks to send a message that Serbia and the rest of the Western Balkans “belonged in Europe.”

“You have an ally in Spain who will support you in your effort to join the European Union,” Sanchez said at a joint press conference with Vucic. He described relations with Serbia as “excellent.”

Vucic said “Serbia sees Spain as a true friend, one of its biggest friends in the world.”

Spain is among a handful of EU nations who have not recognized the independence of Serbia’s former province of Kosovo, which has won the backing of the United States and most EU countries.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008, a decade after its ethnic Albanian majority launched a rebellion against Serbia’s rule, triggering a brutal crackdown by Belgrade. The conflict claimed more than 10,000 lives before NATO bombed Serbia to force it to cede control over the territory.

With Spain facing own separatist movements, Sanchez said his government believes in the respect of territorial integrity. He called for a resolution of the Kosovo dispute through an ongoing EU-mediated dialogue.

The two leaders also announced plans for Serbia and Spain to hold a business forum in October.

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