Drawing from its own experience and 20 years after the Zagreb Summit in 2000, which opened the path to Croatia’s European Union membership, Croatia intended to do the same show of faith for its neighbours as the youngest presiding country and the newest member of the European Union. In the months of planning before taking over the helm of the rotating presidency, Croatia intended for the Western Balkans Summit to be the pinnacle of its presidency, an event that would push for the EU’s expansion and the accession of Western Balkans candidate countries.
Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders of EU Member States, six Western Balkans countries and representatives of international financial institutions met virtually. The meeting was also attended by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, European Parliament President Davide Sassoli, and European Commission Vice-President and High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borell.
A substantial show of support was the announcement that the EU has mobilised a package of over EUR 3.3 billion to help the Western Balkans countries tackle COVID-19 and the post-pandemic recovery. The objective of the Summit was unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans countries. The Summit saw the adoption of the Zagreb Declaration, which has no mention of the EU’s decision in March to begin membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia. Prime Minister Andrej Plenković said that the decision of opening negotiations with these two countries was long overdue and that, in Croatia’s view, Bosnia and Herzegovina deserves candidate status.
When Croatia presented its Presidency motto at the end of 2019 “A strong Europe in a world full of challenges”, nobody could have imagined just how challenging the situation might get. Time will tell whether this Summit will be Croatia’s legacy and the crowning moment of the country’s first-ever presidency of the Council of the EU.