BELGRADE (Reuters) - The European Union aims to further strengthen economic and other ties with Serbia and other nations in the Western Balkans as they edge towards eventual membership, European Council President Donald Tusk said on Wednesday.
Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro are all candidates to join the EU, but the region remains badly scarred by the ethnic wars of the 1990s and struggles to overcome a reputation for lawlessness.
Tusk, who chairs EU summits, said their membership bids would be promoted at a planned EU-Western Balkans summit on May 17 in Sofia, capital of neighbouring Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007 and holds the bloc’s rotating six-month presidency.
“The EU is ready and it wants to remain the most trustworthy partner of Serbia and the entire Western Balkans region,” Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, told reporters after talks with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade.
“At our summit in Sofia we will reaffirm that readiness to work on EU integration,” Tusk said, speaking Serbian.
The European Council headed by Tusk groups the EU’s 28 national governments.
Serbia and Montenegro are the frontrunners for EU membership and the EU’s executive Commission has set a tentative target accession date of 2025.
All six Western Balkan nations seeking EU membership must tackle corruption and organised crime, improve human rights and media freedoms and resolve any disputes with their neighbours before they can join.
“There’s a lot of work ahead of Serbia .. We have started to work on the rule of law ... and on cooperation with journalists’ associations,” Vucic said.
EU members such as Poland, Italy and Austria want the bloc to expand into the Western Balkans, which has seen growing Russian and Chinese influence. The EU remains the region’s main investor and trade partner.
Vucic said he and Werner Hoyer, head of the European Investment Bank, had signed a 45 million euro ($54.82 million) loan deal to upgrade joint air traffic control of Serbia and Montenegro to meet EU regulations.
Since 2007, the EIB and other EU financial institutions have invested more than 7 billion euros in the region. The EIB plans to extend about 700 million euros ($861.98 million) in 2018 for infrastructure in the Western Balkans.
($1 = 0.8208 euros)
Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Gareth Jones