SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria said on Wednesday it would push for more infrastructure, energy and other projects to help bring Western Balkan nations closer to the European Union when it takes up the rotating six-month presidency of the bloc in January.
Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Kosovo all aspire to join the EU. Although the EU faces multiple challenges including Brexit and eurozone reform, its integration commissioner Johannes Hahn said this week there was “more willingness” now to consider further enlargement.
Lilyana Pavlova, the minister responsible for Bulgaria’s EU presidency, said closer cooperation with the Western Balkan nations, including on migration and security issues, was essential for the Union’s own peace and stability.
The peace, the calm, the stability and the future of Europe pass through the Western Balkans. The European project will not be complete without them,” Pavlova told Reuters in an interview.
“Their integration is a natural process, which had somewhat dimmed, but a process that needs to continue and now is the time if we don’t want to miss the moment,” said Pavlova, 39, a member of Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s centre-right GERB party.
Bulgaria, which joined the EU with its northern neighbour Romania in 2007, cannot promise faster accession for its Western Balkan neighbours, Pavlova added.
“We definitely do not want to give false hopes. But when we support them with projects, with investment, when they feel part of the European family, that is in reality the European perspective we are talking about,” she said.
Bulgaria will host an EU-Western Balkan summit on May 17 that Pavlova hopes will result in concrete agreements to boost transport, energy and digital links between the Western Balkans and the EU.
Sofia will also seek more EU funds for new highways, railroads and energy infrastructure to link the region with the bloc as well as financing from the World Bank, the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).
Bulgaria also wants to reduce roaming rates for the Western Balkans just as they were lowered for EU citizens this year.
The Western Balkans is still recovering from the wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Serbia and Montenegro, which have already started EU accession talks, could be closest to joining, probably around 2025, EU officials say.
But Serbia’s accession is conditional on repairing ties with its former province of Kosovo, whose declaration of independence in 2008 Belgrade - and a number of other countries - refuses to recognise. Montenegro is required to improve the rule of law.
Albania also has to advance with judicial reforms, while Macedonia has to resolve a long-running row with Greece over its name, which it shares with a northern Greek province.
Bosnia and Kosovo have still to carry out reforms required to secure the status of official candidates for EU membership.
Bulgaria will also work during its presidency to ensure that easterners seeking to catch up with wealthier western European nations do not see a significant cut in EU financial aid following Britain’s exit from the bloc in 2019, Pavlova said.
Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Gareth Jones