Leaders of the European Union and Western Balkan partners met in Sofia on May 17 to discuss cooperation in the areas of connectivity, security and the rule of law.

“This summit has allowed us to forge even closer links with our friends from the Western Balkans who, step by step, each day come a little bit closer to the European Union – each at its own pace and merits. Being anchored in the European Union means sharing values and principles, including respect for the rule of law, independence of the judiciary and freedom of expression – because the European Union is first of all a community of values and law,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

According to a Commission press release, the summit and the resulting Sofia Declaration stress the importance of the Western Balkans’ continued commitment to the rule of law, the fight against corruption and organised crime, good governance, as well as respect for human rights and rights of persons belonging to minorities.

The effective implementation of reforms in these areas is considered key for the region’s further progress along the European path.

To support the implementation of the Sofia Declaration and drawing on the Commission’s Western Balkans Strategy and its six flagship initiatives, President Juncker announced a new package of measures which will boost connectivity within the region and with the EU, notably through the Western Balkans Investment Framework.

The EU will provide grants for additional 11 high-priority transport projects (road, rail, ports) worth €190m. This investment can leverage up to €1bn in loans from international financing institutions. This includes funding for the first two sections of the ‘Peace Highway’ (Nis-Pristina-Durres) and the ‘Blue Highway’ along the Adriatic coast.

The EU will also support the region’s energy transition through promoting renewable energy sources, including a sustainable use of hydropower.

According to the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) Group in the European Parliament, the summit in Sofia was an opportunity to confirm a credible accession perspective for the Western Balkan countries.

“The S&D Group has always been a staunch supporter of the EU enlargement towards the Western Balkans,” said S&D leader, Udo Bullmann, ahead of the summit. “We refuse to give up to the populists, and instead we choose to explain better to our citizens that the EU itself will benefit from a stable and prosperous Western Balkans. It is not charity! Supporting Western Balkans’ efforts to pursue positive and required reforms is a rational investment that aims at ensuring a better future for both sides.

“As the cases of Poland and Hungary show, it is not enough to have the law aligned to the European treaties and acquis communautaire at the day of accession,” he added. “High standards of democracy must be respected afterwards too.”

As for the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) Group in the European Parliament, they too stressed the Western Balkans’ belonging to the European family.

The chairman of the ECR’s Western Balkan’s Policy Group, Angel Dzhambazski, along with a number of other ECR Members, set out their priorities, reflections, and recommendations in policy paper that considers what more needs to be done to advance cooperation between the EU and the Western Balkans, and in some countries’ cases continue on the path to EU membership.

“The EU needs to do all it can to offer a prosperous, stable, and open future partnership for the region, so that Western Balkan nations want to turn towards the EU and the West rather than the East,” said Dzhambazki.

“We welcome the Summit and its aims. Once the Summit is over, we must not lose momentum in what we are trying to achieve, which for some countries in the Western Balkans means EU membership sooner rather than later.”