Migration, security and EU's future top agenda at Balkans summit
Published 04/07/2016 | 19:16
Top officials from Western Europe are meeting Balkan leaders to find ways to better prevent extremists from sneaking in with migrants who are moving west across Europe.
They are also looking to soothe worries about European stability and prosperity after Britain's vote to leave the EU, notably by boosting opportunities for youths from countries that dream of joining the EU.
German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Francois Hollande are meeting with Austria's chancellor, Italy's finance minister and leaders of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia.
Balkan nations that suffered through wars and political break-ups in the 1990s worry that they will now face more hurdles to their membership bids as the EU struggles to stay together.
On top of the agenda on Monday is reinforcing security checks of migrants traversing the Balkans toward Western Europe, French officials said.
A handful of extremists are known to have mixed in with the more than one million migrants crossing into Europe last year, including through the Balkans. That route is largely shut now but migrant pressure persists.
Balkan integration into the EU is considered key for stability of the volatile region. The EU's current troubles are emboldening pro-Russian groups in Serbia who favour closer ties with Russia instead of the West.
Amid concerns that the Brexit vote could close off opportunities for Balkan youth looking to opportunity in the West, the leaders are signing an agreement on Monday on youth exchanges with non-EU members by granting special visas and creating an "office for Balkan youth".
EU enlargement is not directly on the agenda at Monday's meeting - to the dismay of some Balkan leaders.
Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic was disappointed by an EU decision last week to delay further membership talks.
Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania, all at different stages in trying to join the EU, say the British exit vote will not diminish their membership efforts.