European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaking at the GLOBSEC 2023 Bratislava Forum on Wednesday presented a new initiative for the Western Balkans, saying “it is not enough to just wait for our friends outside the Union to move closer to us. We must also take responsibility to bring the aspiring members of our Union much closer to us.”

“We want to build on the progress achieved in recent months. But we also want to bring some of the benefits of EU membership to the people of the Western Balkans already today,” von der Leyen said in the keynote speech.

To a certain extent, she added, this is a new approach for the European Union.

“We do not only ask our partners to take new steps towards us. We also take a big step towards them. Our shared goal is to speed up their journey towards the EU. And for this, we bring our Union closer to the Western Balkans,” she noted.

“The growth plan we are proposing today is built on four pillars: First, to bring the Western Balkans closer to the EU Single Market. Second, to deepen regional economic integration. Third, to accelerate fundamental reforms. And fourth, to increase pre-accession funds,” von der Leyen underlined.

“We want to offer the Western Balkans some of the advantages to membership in advance. But this means that certain requirements of membership also have to be met in advance. Some of the reforms that are part of the accession process are key for investors’ confidence. Think about building an independent and efficient judiciary, ensuring sound public procurement and stepping up the fight against corruption. Or think about the energy market. The Western Balkan region has a huge potential to diversify away from Russian fossil fuels. But it needs to increase energy efficiency, step up diversification and accelerate the deployment of more renewables,” she noted.

The Western Balkans, von der Leyen said, can achieve both: energy independence from Russia and closer alignment with the European Union to speed up accession.

“My final point is straightforward. We stand ready to support the Western Balkans with increased pre-accession funding. There is a dire need of investment in the Western Balkans. These investments will make people’s lives better. And they will also smooth the way into our Union. For this reason, we should increase the resources dedicated to the Western Balkans. In these turbulent times, this four-point plan is the right offer for the Western Balkans,” von der Leyen underscored.