European Union heavyweight Germany will host a summit of Balkan leaders Thursday, as part of Berlin's plans to speed up the region's integration into the 27-nation bloc.
Leaders of six western Balkan countries will meet German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Berlin to discuss the EU enlargement process, regional cooperation, and energy security.
"The region's integration into the EU has gained more urgency after (the start of) Russia's war on Ukraine," a senior German diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
He added that Scholz was committed to speeding up the EU accession of Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania.
"Russia's strategy has been to manipulate the rifts in the western Balkans. We would like to counter this. We would like to enhance cooperation among these countries. And we would like to bring them closer to the EU," the diplomat stressed.
Western Balkan countries have been seeking membership in the bloc for more than a decade and their leaders have repeatedly criticized their European counterparts for being reluctant to take in new members, blocking EU enlargement.
Serbia and Montenegro were granted EU candidate country status more than 10 years ago and have since continued negotiations to join the bloc.
The EU decided to start membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia in July, while Bosnia and Herzegovina is hoping to obtain EU candidate country status this December. For now, Kosovo is only considered a potential candidate to join the EU.
Chancellor Scholz is planning to reiterate Berlin's strong support for these countries' EU membership during the summit, raising their expectations, according to diplomats.
Western Balkan countries have to meet the EU's "Copenhagen criteria" on membership, which require the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and respect for and protection of minorities.
According to the diplomats, the EU expects Western Balkan nations to align their foreign policy with that of the EU, supporting the bloc's sanctions against Russia.
Here, Serbia's close ties with Russia, and its recent agreements to boost cooperation with Moscow, have been a source of concern, a senior German diplomat said.
Scholz, EU Commission President von der Leyen, and the Balkan leaders are expected to discuss foreign policy issues, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and the increased number of refugees on the Balkan route, during their lunch Thursday.
One of the highlights of the summit will be the signing ceremony of three agreements by the leaders, according to the diplomats.
With these accords, the six Western Balkan countries will mutually recognize each other's ID cards, university diplomas, vocational qualifications and degrees, enabling free movement and closer regional cooperation.
"These are real, practical steps for the people. These will bring a new, positive dynamic for closer cooperation in the region," a senior diplomat said.
During the summit, the leaders are also expected to discuss energy security, electricity interconnections in the Western Balkans, and EU support for the countries to enhance cooperation in this field.
The Western Balkans Summit will be held as part of the "Berlin Process," set up by Germany in 2014 as a platform for high-level cooperation between the EU, and the Balkan states.