Scholz visits Western Balkans to help bid for EU membership
Band Sarah Marsh
BERLIN, June 10 (Reuters) – German Chancellor Olaf Scholz kicks off a two-day tour of the Western Balkans on Friday in a bid to reinvigorate their long campaign to join the European Union, ease regional tensions and ward off the influence of rival powers such as Russia.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given a new sense of urgency to the need to bring Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo closer to the EU in 27, whether through full membership or an alternative community.
Scholz’s visit follows that of European Council President Charles Michel and before the EU-Western Balkans leaders’ summit on June 23.
The prospect of EU membership was for years the main driver of reform and greater cooperation in the region after a decade of war and upheaval in the 1990s, until the expansion of the EU is bogged down, breeding disillusionment.
Unresolved conflicts have recently given rise to new tensions there, such as the secession plans of the pro-Russian Bosnian Serbs.
“The fact that this hasn’t happened is a real problem and the growing influence of other countries like Russia and China is the result of this process which is not developing,” said Florian Bieber, an expert on Balkans at the Austrian University of Graz.
SCHOLZ FOREIGN POLICY PRIORITY
The Scholz government, which took office in December, has made the accession of the Western Balkans to the EU a priority of its foreign policy.
“We will not abandon this region in the heart of Europe to the influence of Moscow,” Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said during her visit in March.
The question is whether the new government is able to come up with a real strategy to move the process forward or whether it will simply “get confused” like former Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has professed her support for the region but does not didn’t do much to change the dynamic. , Bieber said.
Scholz will travel first to Kosovo and then to Serbia on Friday, after meeting with the leaders of both countries last month in Berlin.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was also due to visit Serbia this week, which is trying to balance its European aspirations with its centuries-old alliance with the Kremlin. But his visit was canceled when neighboring countries closed their airspace.
The German Chancellor is due to travel to Thessaloniki in Greece later for a dinner with representatives of the South East European Cooperation Process (SEECP), a regional Balkan body made up of 12 countries.
On Saturday, he will travel to North Macedonia and Bulgaria, which are embroiled in a dispute preventing the start of accession talks for the former country.
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh in Berlin; Additional reporting by Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade; Editing by Alex Richardson)
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