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[BELGRADE] The leaders of some of the European Union's biggest economies, including Germany's Angela Merkel, will offer the western Balkan countries new incentives to join the world's largest trading bloc and stabilise the continent's most volatile region.
Ms Merkel will be joined by French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and the leaders of Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania at a summit in Trieste, Italy on Wednesday.
They'll endorse a regional economic area and get a pledge for 220 million euros (S$347.678 million) in aid for infrastructure projects, European Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said.
Almost two decades following Europe's bloodiest conflict since World War II, most of the fragments of the former Yugoslavia are struggling to integrate with the EU and join in a wave of prosperity that has raised living standards in most of the former communist east.
Now Germany and other EU members are trying to coax the region of 20 million people into embracing the bloc's economic and democratic values as Cold War adversary Russia also seeks to strengthen its influence on Europe's southern fringe.
"We want to send a very clear message to the citizens of the Western Balkans: you belong to Europe, " Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano told reporters in Trieste on Tuesday.
"We can't go alone with the same external borders. They are strategic and they are open to influence from stakeholders who don't share the same values."
So far, Slovenia and Croatia are the only former western Balkan states to join both the EU and Nato, while Montenegro and Albania are also members of the military alliance.
Serbia, the largest former Yugoslav republic, aims to be ready to join the EU by the end of the decade. But it must still normalise ties with its former province Kosovo, whose 2008 independence it has refused to recognise.
Serbia and its neighbours also face challenges overhauling their economies, strengthening rule of law, and meeting other standards that the EU requires of its members.
Thorny relations between the region's Slavic and Albanian ethnic groups have also been a source of tension, with leaders often accusing each other of mistreating minorities and claiming territory outside their borders.
If they can achieve membership, the 28-member trading club offers to boost the economies of countries that have watched their former communist neighbors prosper.
Living standards measured in output per capita and adjusted for prices range from 30 per cent of the EU average in Albania to 42 per cent in Montenegro. In Slovenia, which joined in 2004 with seven other former eastern-bloc states, that figure is 83 per cent.