European Union – Western Balkans Summit in Greece

European Union – Western Balkans Summit in Greece

Western Balkans’ leaders and European officials gathered for a summit hosted by Greece on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the European Union – Western Balkans Summit and the adoption of the Thessaloniki Declaration, which stated the prospect of EU membership for all countries in the region. The event was attended by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, Moldova’s President Maia Sandu, and Montenegro’s President Jakov Milatović, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of Greece, Romanian PM Ion-Marcel Čolaku, North Macedonian PM Dimitar Kovačevski, Bulgarian PM Nikolai Denkov, Croatian PM Andrej Plenković, Head of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina Borjan Kristo, Prime Minister Albin Kurti of Kosovo, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, as well as President of the European Council Charles Michel and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen.

At the meeting in Athens, the parties discussed EU expansion and the European future of the region, as well as the war raging in Ukraine. The Declaration of Support for Independence, Sovereignty, and Territorial Integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders was agreed and adopted, emphasizing that the Western Balkans, Ukraine, and Moldova share a common European heritage, history, and future. The eight-point text specifically states that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a turning point for Europe that created a new level of awareness of unity and a common future within the EU. Faced with the challenge of Russian aggression, unwavering support for the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders has been expressed. Support and gratitude were expressed to the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, for his persistent efforts aimed at establishing the principles of peace in his Peace Formula in accordance with the UN Charter. It was stated that there can be no impunity for war crimes and other atrocities, and that all those responsible must be held accountable. The participants stated that 20 years ago, the summit in Thessaloniki recognized that the Western Balkans belong to the European Union, while the escalation of the war of aggression against Ukraine revealed the urgent need for a strong, stable, and comprehensive EU. The Western Balkans, Ukraine, and Moldova are geographically adjacent to the EU member states, sharing a common European heritage, history, and future defined by common opportunities and challenges. It is critical that all of them are accepted as full members of the European family. The need was emphasized to intensify the enlargement process, which would deserve trust and show readiness to support Ukraine and Moldova in the process of joining the EU.

Due to the opposition on the part of the president of Serbia, the provision on imposing sanctions on Russia was not included in the final Declaration.

Within the framework of the summit, President Volodymyr Zelensky held a meeting with the Head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, expressing gratitude for the efforts aimed at normalizing the export and transit of Ukrainian agricultural products. The parties also discussed alternative routes for grain exports following Russia’s blocking of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, in particular through Croatia’s Danube and Adriatic ports. Special attention was paid to security and financial aspects, and issues of ship insurance. Zelensky thanked von der Leyen for the latest tranche of financial aid in the amount of EUR 1.5 billion. The leaders assessed Ukraine’s progress in implementing the seven recommendations of the European Commission and further steps to this end. Volodymyr Zelensky and Ursula von der Leyen coordinated positions on the Peace Formula and preparations for the Global Peace Summit.

President Volodymyr Zelensky also held a meeting with Prime Minister of Bulgaria Nikolai Denkov, thanking him for the comprehensive support to Ukraine in repelling Russian aggression, including for the recent decisions of the Bulgarian government to provide defense assistance. The cooperation of the two countries to guarantee stable security in the Black Sea and the functioning of the “grain corridor” via alternative routes was also discussed.

Volodymyr Zelensky thanked his counterpart for supporting Ukraine’s Peace Formula and the willingness of the Bulgarian side to participate in the implementation of its specific clauses, as well as Bulgaria’s accession to the Joint Declaration of Support to Ukraine, adopted by the Group of Seven at the NATO Summit in Vilnius.

President Zelensky of Ukraine also held a meeting with President Aleksandar Vučić of Serbia. The parties noted that mutual support of territorial integrity and sovereignty is an important part of the partnership between Ukraine and Serbia. Volodymyr Zelensky briefed his counterpart on the latest battlefield developments and the actions of the Ukrainian army. The leaders discussed issues of regional security, bilateral relations, and prospects for their development. Separately, the two presidents paid attention to common challenges on the path of Ukraine and Serbia to membership in the European Union. Volodymyr Zelensky expressed gratitude for the humanitarian aid that Serbia provides to the Ukrainian people, offering the Serbian side to support the Ukrainian Peace Formula and to participate in the third summit of the international Crimea Platform on August 23. “I had an honest, open, friendly, constructive, and frank conversation with the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky,” said Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. According to him, Zelensky asked what people in Serbia think. “I spoke about what happened in 1999, confirming that Serbia supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine and will continue to do so,” Vučić said. He added that various forms of cooperation were discussed because Ukraine, although it is in a state of war, should already think about rebuilding the country. Vučić explained the situation regarding Kosovo, noting that he does not think that Ukraine’s position regarding the territorial integrity of Serbia, which supported Ukraine on its European path, will change.

President Zelensky also held a meeting with the President of Greece, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, discussing the latest developments on the front line and the security situation in the region in view of Russia’s continued aggression against Ukraine. He expressed hope for the involvement of Greece in the restoration of the affected regions across Ukraine, especially Odesa. The president of Ukraine also held a meeting with Prime Minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis. “Today we have an important result for the aviation coalition – Greece will take part in providing training for our pilots on F-16s,” said the Ukrainian head of state. He also noted the importance of the fact that Greek companies are ready to participate in the transportation of Ukrainian grain.

President Zelensky met with the Prime Minister of the Republic of Croatia, Andrej Plenković, thanking him for the preparation of a new defense package for Ukraine. Ukraine is ready to remain a guarantor of global food security and is interested in finding new ways of supplying food to global markets, one of which could be via Croatia. The Croatian side confirmed its readiness to provide ports on the Danube and the Adriatic Sea for the transportation of Ukrainian grain. The president of Ukraine emphasized the importance of Croatian experience in the field of humanitarian demining and thanked Croatia for its practical assistance and leadership in demining Ukrainian territories. The importance was noted of holding the International Donor Conference on Humanitarian Demining, which will be held in Zagreb in October.

On the sidelines of the summit, President Volodymyr Zelensky held a meeting with the Prime Minister of the Republic of North Macedonia, Dimitar Kovačevski, thanking him for the constant and principled support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, as well as defense support, including the preparation of another aid package. The parties discussed the development of further cooperation between the two states in the field of defense. The leaders noted that integration into the European Union is a common goal of the two countries, and agreed to coordinate efforts on this path.

As part of his participation in the summit in Athens, President Volodymyr Zelensky held talks with the President of the Republic of Moldova, Maia Sandu. The heads of state touched upon the pressing issues of bilateral cooperation, regional security, joint opposition to the Kremlin’s aggressive policy and Russian hybrid influence. The parties discussed cooperation between the two countries in creating alternative routes for the export of Ukrainian grain after Russia blocked the Black Sea Grain Initiative. The presidents also focused on the important issue of the integration of Ukraine and Moldova into the European Union and common challenges along the way. Volodymyr Zelensky and Maia Sandu discussed Moldova’s participation in the third summit of the international Crimea Platform in Kyiv on August 23.

At the summit, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine met with the President Jakov Milatović of Montenegro, thanking Montenegro for humanitarian, military, and political assistance amid Russia’s full-scale aggression, support for Ukraine’s path to NATO, and the move to align with the Joint Declaration of Security Guarantees adopted at the NATO summit in Vilnius by G7 leaders. The parties discussed Montenegro’s support in the implementation of the Ukrainian Peace Formula and further steps in preparation for the Global Peace Summit and Jakov Milatović’s expected participation in the third summit of the Crimea Platform on August 23 via videoconference.

The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, during talks with the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, drew attention to the need for a constructive approach to de-escalate the situation in the north of Kosovo. Von der Leyen mentioned Serbia’s progress toward the European Union and assessed that closer integration of the EU and the Western Balkans is vital, especially in view of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Von der Leyen also spoke with the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti about the need to de-escalate tensions in the north of Kosovo, the importance of re-engaging in the dialogue (with Belgrade) under the auspices of the European Union, and about the implementation of the agreement on the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia.

The president of Serbia said in Athens that Prime Minister of North Macedonia Dmitar Kovačevski reacted sharply to what Prime Minister of Kosovo Albin Kurti did in Tetovo. “I had a long conversation with Kovačevski and I apologized for everything, if anyone ever said something bad about North Macedonia,” Vučić noted, apparently referring to a statement by Defense Minister Miloš Vučević, who said that Montenegro and North Macedonia were in the wrong toward Serbia by recognizing Kosovo, noting that this is interference in Serbia’s internal affairs, and that it will eventually backfire.

Thus, the EU-Western Balkans summit with the participation of Ukraine and Moldova was of great importance in the context of confirming the perspective of these countries’ membership in the European Union. The support for Ukraine’s fight against Russian aggression expressed by the participants in the summit in a joint statement testified to the unity in the general European policy towards the Russian Federation, which is trying to create a split in the general European position regarding the condemnation of Russia’s aggressive policy, which undermines the foundations of European and global security.

Contrary to some outlooks, Serbia never pushed for an escalation during the summit, despite Vučić’s somewhat critical position regarding the move to invite Ukraine to participate in this format. With the exception of the expected refusal to support Russia sanctions, the president of Serbia has publicly demonstrated his commitment to a pro-European political course in terms of supporting the territorial integrity of Ukraine, condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and agreeing with the need to prosecute war criminals. Contrary to Vučić’s previous statements regarding the possible priority of Serbia’s entry into the BRICS, it seems that the EU maintains its influence on the country, despite its close ties with Russia. It is likely that the position of Greece and Ukraine on non-recognition of Kosovo still plays an important role in Serbia’s decisions on international platforms. 

The bilateral meetings held within the framework of the summit proved the effectiveness and efficiency of the Athens venue and willingness on the part of all top level participants to engage in a constructive and fruitful dialogue on the widest range of European integration, security, and bilateral issues.