German foreign minister calls for faster EU enlargement to Western Balkans amid Russia threat

German foreign minister calls for faster EU enlargement to Western Balkans amid Russia threat
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has encouraging message for Montenegro's Prime Minister Milojko Spajic during Podgorica visit. /
By bne IntelliNews March 4, 2024

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock spoke on March 4 of the urgency of advancing European Union enlargement to include Western Balkan countries, citing concerns over Russian and Chinese influence in the region.

Visiting the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, Baerbock said Montenegro will have the full support of Germany in the reforms that will accelerate its European path

"Today we received confirmation that the countries of the Western Balkans and the enlargement policy are in the centre of attention of the EU,” said Montenegrin Minister of Foreign Affairs Filip Ivanović after a meeting with his German counterpart. 

Ahead of her trip, which will include a visit to Bosnia & Herzegovina, Baerbock spoke of the need to provide robust support to the Western Balkan countries on their journey towards EU membership, pointing out the risk posed by Moscow to the region's stability.

"The countries of the Western Balkans are an integral part of our Europe. Doing everything in our power to support the six countries in the region along their path towards the European Union has, in view of Russia’s brutal imperialism, become a geopolitical necessity, if it wasn’t before," Baerbock said ahead of her visit, according to a German foreign ministry statement. 

"We cannot afford to tolerate any grey areas in Europe, and together we must do everything we can to protect flanks which Russia could use for its policy of destabilisation, disinformation and subversion. This includes helping the countries of the Western Balkans to strengthen their democratic institutions, improve their resilience and offer their people economic prospects.” 

Baerbock underlined the importance of helping Western Balkan states enhance their democratic institutions, bolster sustainability, and provide economic opportunities for their citizens.

This week Baerbock is visiting Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina, which along with Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Serbia are working towards EU accession.

While Montenegro initiated accession negotiations in 2012, progress has been sluggish, prompting calls for accelerated reforms from Brussels. However, the new government has expressed its commitment to advancing on the accession path. 

“In the EU accession process, Montenegro has set itself an ambitious agenda and is now once again tackling it with determination,” said Baerbock. “We want to work together to use this new enthusiasm and support Montenegro as a close partner and good friend along its path towards EU membership.”

"I am glad that this visit comes at a time when Montenegro is making significant progress on its European path. This is especially valuable for us, because it confirms that our partners and allies, as well as the member states of the Union, recognize the commitment and results we are achieving," said Ivanovic.

Bosnia secured candidate status in December 2022, yet formal accession talks have not started. 

“Along the path towards the EU, the leaders in Sarajevo need to take steps to consistently implement the necessary reforms. The adoption of the law to tackle money laundering and terrorist financing was one such European reform requirement. In view of the local elections due to take place in October, tackling electoral reform with an integrity package is now crucial,” said the German foreign minister.

The conflict in Ukraine has reinvigorated the EU's push for expansion into Southeast and Eastern Europe, with new states including Moldova and Ukraine as well as Bosnia gaining candidates status. 

The EU has also announced the €6bn New Growth Plan with the aim of doubling the economy of the Western Balkans over the next decade, and giving aspiring members some of the benefits of membership before accession. 

Previously frustrations were mounting across the Western Balkans due to the sluggish pace of the EU accession process.