BRUSSELS - The European Union hopes six Balkan countries will agree at a summit on July 12 in Italy to create a regional common market that could be working within a year, a top EU official said Tuesday, in the bloc's latest step to re-engage the region.
The EU is eager to show it remains committed to the Balkan region despite public hostility at home to further eastern enlargement of the bloc following years of economic crisis, high unemployment and the rise of euroskeptic and populist parties.
The Western Balkan common market, which would remove barriers to trade, introduce standardized rules for businesses and lift obstacles to working across the region, would build on an existing regional free-trade accord, said European Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who oversees EU membership bids.
"We hope to get endorsement for this at the Trieste summit," Hahn said of the next annual gathering of Western Balkans leaders with top EU officials.
"With the political will, we can have this done within a year," he told reporters, adding that the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, would help the process.
Pointing toward EU
The six Western Balkan nations, still scarred by wars fought in the 1990s and plagued by political and ethnic divisions, all hope eventually to join the EU. The six are Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.
The EU sees a common market of 20 million people across the six nations as a way to strengthen the Balkan economy, calm ethnic tensions, counter Russian influence and reinvigorate the region's bid to join the bloc, diplomats say.
Hahn said the common market would help prepare countries for the EU's single market, which breaks down barriers to trading across the bloc, giving unfettered access to consumers.
"This is an attempt to create a positive atmosphere in the Balkans, to create new business opportunities. It should be achievable," Hahn said.
Hahn also stressed that any agreement would not remove all remaining tariff barriers because Kosovo relies on customs duties for a third of its revenues.