Leaders from Western Balkans, EU, meet to discuss growth plan, reforms

FILE PHOTO: European Union flags fly outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels

KOTOR, Montenegro (Reuters) -The six Western Balkan countries, aspiring to join the European Union, met in Montenegro on Thursday to discuss how to speed up necessary reforms, create their own single market and ultimately join the bloc.

The countries - Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia - were promised EU membership years ago but the accession process has slowed to a crawl, mainly because of reluctance among the EU's 27 members and a lack of reforms required to meet EU standards, including those concerning the economy, judiciary, legal systems, environmental protection and media freedoms.

The meeting in Montenegro follows similar summits in recent months between top EU officials and regional leaders in North Macedonia's capital Skopje and Albania's Tirana.

The bloc wants to use a common growth plan worth 6 billion euros ($6.52 billion) to help the Western Balkans nations form a regional common market and join the European common market in areas such as free movement of goods and services, transport and energy.

But payments are linked to countries implementing reforms and resolving outstanding issues with their neighbours.

The "growth plan is no longer a draft, it is a reality we have started to implement," Oliver Varhelyi, the European commissioner for enlargement, told a news conference.

Payments from the 6-billion-euro package would be disbursed every six months until 2027 to countries that have implemented required reforms.

If all the reform processes are on track, the Western Balkan countries should be ready by 2027 to join the EU, during the tenure of the next European Commission.

"You may expect to see the next commission as an enlargement commission," Varhelyi said.

One incentive would be access to the Single European Payment Area (SEPA), an EU payment initiative aimed at simplification of bank transfers in euros.

"(This) will reduce costs by perhaps 7% every time someone sends money. This will reduce the cost of borrowing, which will allow businesses to expand," said James O'Brien, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.

Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic said the EU growth agenda including the 6-billion euro plan would help ensure speedier trade and services in the region and with Europe.

"This is something that brings huge benefits for the region," he told news conference.

Serbia and Montenegro were the first in the region to launch EU membership talks, and Albania and North Macedonia began talks with Brussels in 2022. Bosnia and Kosovo lag far behind their neighbours in the process.

Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania are also members of NATO.

($1 = 0.9200 euros)

(Reporting by Aleksandar VasovicEditing by Gerry Doyle, Bernadette Baum and Frances Kerry)