Brussels, 5 May 2020 (MIA) – A day before the virtual summit in Zagreb, where EU and Western Balkan leaders are to reaffirm the region’s “clear EU perspective,” Brussels notes that the EUR 3.3 billion support package to tackle the pandemic is subject to very strict EU control, MIA’s Brussels corespondent reports.
The summit in Zagreb won’t focus on enlargement to the region, European officials said Tuesday, partly because of the sanitary crisis, and because the enlargement is discussed as part of the EU’s General Affairs Council.
Although leaders are free to open any topic they find important, the main focus tomorrow will be on the EUR 3.3 billion financial and material support package mobilized by the EU to fight against the coronavirus and its effects in the region.
In response to reporters’ questions Tuesday morning, an official of the European Commission assured media that the EC will closely monitor the funds when they arrive in the countries.
“I assure you that every tranche is subject to very strict audit and control mechanisms and on the slightest suspicion of misuse of funds, we’ll open an investigation that may lead to criminal prosecution. EU funds are tied to very strict conditions,” according to the EC.
Even though the region was initially excluded from most funds and support mechanisms, the EU has since lifted restrictions, so as of the end of April, countries in the region are no longer required special permits to import medical equipment necessary in the fight against the coronavirus. The restrictions were largely criticized, especially in Serbia where President Aleksandar Vucic openly criticized the EU for providing less assistance to his country than China.
“We’ve seen problems in communication, spread of false accusations about the friendship between the EU and the countries in the region. Leaders need to align on the messages they send and oppose the misconception of our relations,” said a high EU official ahead of Wednesday’s summit.
The EU “has no doubt” that the Western Balkans are a “close partner,” and that neither China nor Russia are closer friends to the region.
However, criticism also centered on the fact that the summit won’t focus on the enlargement, and the Zagreb declaration that leaders are to sign tomorrow bears no mention of enlargement, nor membership or negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania.
The EU rejects such criticism.
“The idea for tomorrow is to reaffirm the EU perspective of the region. We do this with our partners. The fact that a decision was reached for North Macedonia on March 26 clearlu shows that the EU perspective is the main impetus for the reforms that benefit all citizens. We’ve shown that we deliver when our partners deliver. We’re not focusing on enlargement, partly because COVID-19 is the main topic, but this doesn’t mean that the process has been brought to a halt. The process will continue at the next meeting of the General Affairs Council in June, and it will see progress. We believe there’s a specific issue we need to focus on now,” said a high EU official.
The EC also confirms that work on the negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania is in full swing, and the negotiation framework will be presented along with the annual progress reports on the countries in the region. The date for the reports hasn’t been set yet due to the coronavirus crisis, but but it should be set soon.