Addressing parliament’s European affairs committee, Olivér Várhelyi, EU commissioner for neighborhood policy and enlargement, said the Western Balkans could become Europe’s “new energy gateway”, a region through which the EU could have supplied “via new routes, from different sources and in a much more reliable way”.
Referring to an upcoming Western Balkans-EU summit in Tirana, Várhelyi said the selection of the venue “clearly indicates that enlargement has become one of three top priorities for the EU”. “Stability, security, and prosperity in Europe cannot be ensured without enlargement,” the commissioner said, adding that Europe could neither compete globally nor protect its regional geopolitical interests without fully integrating the Western Balkans. Várhelyi said the enlargement process could be accelerated if “the great challenges facing the Western Balkans and Europe simultaneously are addressed in cooperation, whether it is the energy crisis or migration”.
Concerning energy, he noted a new European proposal to spend 2.5 billion euros on building a completely new energy network in the region.
On the subject of migration, Várhelyi said the number of illegal migrants had increased in the Western Balkans, reaching 2016 levels. “It is clear that the Balkans cannot cope with the situation alone and the trend could destabilise the region without European assistance,” he said adding that the EU is providing the region with 350 million euros to fight illegal migration and an additional 70 million euros to finance efforts to combat human smuggling and organised crime as well as a contribution towards border controls. Long-term peace and stability in Europe are not possible without enlargement, Várhelyi said, adding that the Ukraine war had added uncertainty to the situation.
Among tasks linked to integrating the Western Balkans, the commissioner mentioned developing trade routes, road and rail developments, as well as building an IT infrastructure. He noted that the region was “Europe’s most air-polluting” and said that replacing coal plants with gas-operated generators could reduce pollution by 65%. More “reliable” energy sources, new gas sources and gas transportation routes are needed to reduce and eventually eliminate “the influence of Russian gas”, he said. The commissioner also called for investments in education to prevent young people from leaving the Western Balkans, as well as efforts to integrate the Roma minority, including schools for their children and jobs for their parents. Várhelyi also addressed the subject of the candidacy of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, noting that the European Commission issues a report on the candidate countries each year. He said it was clear that the candidate members “have a long way to go” before meeting accession criteria.