Top MEP David McAllister says bloc must be more visible in the region to counter Kremlins growing influence
The European Union needs to be more visible in the western Balkans to counter Russian attempts to destabilise the region, a leading MEP has said.
Geopolitics has returned to the Balkans, said David McAllister, a German MEP and chair of the European parliaments foreign affairs committee.
We are seeing the growing Russian influence, we are seeing growing Turkish influence, the United States is a player, the European Union is a player, so there are different interests at stake, he said.
But it was Russias role that he described as negative, citing the Kremlins suspected involvement in a failed coup in Montenegro and Moscows support forhardlinenationalist leaders in the region.
Russia was also exerting influence on political debate by organising anti-western, and anti-EU propaganda, McAllister said, especially in Serbian-language media outlets that promoted the Kremlins world view, as well as conspiracy theories and Serbian ultranationalism.
EU leaders will discuss the growing tension in the Balkans at a summit in Brussels on Thursday. According to a draft memo seen by the Guardian, the leaders will renew their promise that the door of membership remains open while stressing the importance of reforms and good neighbourly relations.
Member states are divided over whether the summit communique should identify the outside forces carving out a bigger role in the region. Russia is a particular concern, but officials are also wary of Turkeys growing role.
There is third country interference, one EU diplomat said.
EU diplomats are also worried about Balkan citizens heading to Iraq and Syria to fight for Islamic extremist groups. A disproportionately high number of Kosovans, Albanians and Bosnians have been fighting in Middle Eastern war zones, according to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.
Balkan countries were given the green light to begin the long road to EU membership in 2003, but progress has been mixed. Croatia joined the EU in 2013, and Montenegro and Serbia have embarked on formal membership talks. Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia are further behind in the process.
The EUs foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, visited the region last week, in an attempt to revive momentum towards EU integration. Speaking after her visit, she laid out her profound concerns but also optimism that all countries could eventually join the EU. The Balkans can easily become one of the chessboards where the big power game can be played, Mogherini said.