EU official touts extra billions for Western Balkans

U.S. & World

SKOPJE, North Macedonia (AP) — The European Union’s enlargement commissioner said Wednesday that the bloc is seeking to secure another 20 billion euros ($24 billion) of investment to help the Western Balkans catch up economically with the rest of Europe.

While in Skopje on the first leg of his Balkan tour, Oliver Varhelyi said the funds the EU plans to raise with its international financial partners would help the region recover from the financial fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The EU has already approved a 9 billion-euro package from its budget for the Western Balkans, which include North Macedonia.

Varhelyi said countries in the region must improve their basic digital infrastructure, and make their energy systems more reliable and greener.

He said one initial move would be to phase out coal from regional power production.

“This could be a game changer and only by replacing coal with gas, the emissions would be reduced by 60%,” Varhelyi said.

The commissioner also urged North Macedonia’s government to step up its reform drive — a crucial precondition for the country’s stated aim of eventually joining the EU. The bloc wants to see further progress on issues relating to the rule of law, corruption and reforming the judiciary.

“We need to see quick and effective work on the ground,” Varhelyi said. “We need results.”

North Macedonia and neighboring Albania received the green light this year to start accession talks with the 27-nation bloc.

Western Balkan countries are at different stages of EU membership: Serbia and Montenegro have already started negotiating some chapters of the final deal, while Albania and North Macedonia were given the green light to open them earlier this year. Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina have signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement, the first step in the path.

In his next stop in Albania, Varhelyi urged the country to continue progress of the fundamental reforms of European value: strengthening the rule of law and improving public administration.

“Albania’s continued progress would be key for the outcome of the discussions in the Council,” he said.

Varhelyi said the first inter-government conferences with both countries, which would officially mark the beginning of the membership talks, could be convened by the end of this year.

Speaking in the Albanian parliament, Varhelyi said that the EU considered the Western Balkans “to be a potential of becoming an investment hub.”

“We are convinced that the future of the whole region lies in the European Union and it is in our strategic interest to bring you closer to the EU,” Varhelyi said.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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