A high-profile summit between EU leaders and the heads of six west Balkan states has been moved online due to the pandemic.But the virus has only boosted the bloc's ties to the region, the EU's Oliver Varhelyi told DW.
EU-Western Balkans summit: EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi speaks to DW
The heads of all 27 EU nations are set to discuss EU expansion and the the bloc's political and economical involvement in the western Balkans with their counterparts from Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Albania, North Macedonia, Kosovo, and Montenegro on Wednesday.
The leaders had been set to meet Croatia, the last country from the region to join the EU in 2013. The ongoing pandemic, however, canceled the high-profile summit in Zagreb and forced the politicians to communicate via a video-conference instead.
Speaking to DW ahead of the talks, EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi said that the decision to hold the talks amid the pandemic was a signal that "we mean business" when it comes to the western Balkans.
"We take the western Balkans as a European priority," he said.
The coronavirus pandemic "strengthened" the EU's commitment to the region, he told DW's Bernd Riegert.
"If you look at what we have been doing and delivering in the Western Balkans what you will see is that we have provided help on the ground immediately to each and every single country," Varhelyi added.
Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Albania, North Macedonia, Kosovo, and Montenegro all aspire to join the bloc and their countries are economically and politically dependent on Brussels' support. However, their leaders are also willing to publicly berate Brussels in order to score political points at home.
In turn, the EU is keen to counter the influences of Russia, China, and Turkey in the region which it sees as its interest zone, but many of its politicians are less than enthusiastic about actually incorporating the impoverished and war-torn countries into the bloc.
Notably, Serbian strongman Aleksandar Vucic slammed the EU in mid-March for the lack of aid, saying that "European solidarity doesn't exist - it was a fairy tale [written] on paper." Instead, he directly addressed China's Xi Jinping, calling him "a friend and a brother" and asking for help from Beijing. China was happy to respond and beat the EU to the punch 1 the first pandemic-related aid to reach Serbia came from Chinese humanitarian Mammoth Foundation. Russia also sent out aid to its traditional ally in the early stages of the pandemic. Moscow and Beijing also delivered aid to Bosnia & Herzegovina.
When asked about Vucic's criticism, EU's Varhelyi noted that the Serbian president has since clearly acknowledged the EU's contribution.
"I think that that is all behind us," he said. "And help is help — even if it is criticized, help is there."