[Fox News] Balkan leaders vow to bring economies in line with EU regulations on road to membership

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The leaders of Western Balkan countries agreed Thursday to speed up regional cooperation to benefit more from a new European Union plan of financial aid that will help provide a faster road to membership.

Brussels’ plan calls for about $6.5 billion to be sent to the Balkan states over the next three years in an effort to double the region’s economy over the next decade and accelerate their efforts to the join the bloc. That aid is contingent on reforms that would bring their economies in line with EU rules.

Balkan leaders have welcomed the plan, but the reform agenda is a challenge to implement.

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Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who hosted the summit in Tirana, called the new growth plan “a truly encouraging result of a friendly and open exchange of views.”

“The new opportunity of this out-of-the box plan represents not only recognition from the EU of our decade-long efforts to build a common future against the savage winds of the past, but also challenges us to demonstrate our readiness for a shared European destiny,” he said in an opening speech.

The region’s six countries — Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia — are at different stages in their applications for membership, but residents have been frustrated with the slow pace of the process. Croatia was the last EU member country to be accepted in 2013.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi said the European Commission aims to halve the implementation time for the new “ambitious” plan.

Varhelyi told reporters that the Western Balkan countries agreed to take concrete steps this year such as unifying their financial regulations. Rama said banking transaction costs are six times higher for countries in the region and the new rules would save $540 million.

The six countries also pledged to adapt customs regulations and create joint border crossings like EU member countries.

They also set targets of launching research and development hubs for industry and installing free Wi-Fi in public places.

“But for this to go forward, we also need the region to go forward and that means to deliver on the reforms that are necessary to make this plan functioning and functional,” Varhelyi said.

Present at Thursday’s meeting were Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, North Macedonian Prime Minister Talat Xhaferi and Borjana Kristo, head of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Council of Ministers. Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti planned to send an online message. There was no representative from Montenegro.

Varhelyi was accompanied by senior Commission officials and representatives from international financial institutions.

Rama said bilateral disputes should not interfere in the implementation of the growth plan.

Serbia has not recognized Kosovo’s 2008 independence, and recent tensions between them have sparked concern among Western powers. Both have said they want to join the EU, but the bloc has warned that their refusal to compromise is jeopardizing their chances for membership.

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