The Greek capital welcomed the leaders of several Balkan countries on Monday, along with top European Union officials, to discuss the region’s European future and the challenges it faces.
The informal dinner, hosted by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, marked the 20th anniversary of a summit between the EU and western Balkan countries in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, where the bloc pledged to support the integration of the Balkan states.
The participants included the presidents of Serbia, Montenegro and Moldova, the prime ministers of North Macedonia, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania, and the head of the council of ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel also attended.
In a surprise move, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also joined the dinner, following talks with Mitsotakis and Greece’s figurehead president, Katerina Sakellaropoulou. Zelenskyy thanked Greece for its military support amid the ongoing conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Mitsotakis said the meeting was an opportunity to reaffirm the EU’s commitment to the enlargement process and to address the common challenges and opportunities in the region, such as migration, energy, infrastructure, security and climate change.
He also stressed the need for dialogue and cooperation to overcome bilateral disputes and historical grievances that have hampered the region’s stability and progress.
One notable absence from the event was Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, whose relations with Greece have soured over the jailing of an ethnic Greek minority leader in Albania on vote-buying allegations. Athens has insisted his detention is politically motivated and has called for his release.
The Greek government spokesman said it was not possible to invite Rama to such an important initiative and that Albania’s European path depends on respecting European rules and justice.
The meeting came amid heightened tensions in the region over Kosovo’s independence, Serbia’s relations with Russia and China, North Macedonia’s name change, Bulgaria’s veto on EU accession talks for North Macedonia and Albania, and Turkey’s influence in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The EU has been criticized for its slow and inconsistent approach to the enlargement process, which has led to frustration and disillusionment among some Balkan countries. The bloc has also faced competition from other actors, such as China, Russia, Turkey and the United States, who have increased their economic and political presence in the region.
The EU officials reiterated their support for the European perspective of the western Balkans and urged them to implement reforms and uphold democratic values. They also announced new initiatives to boost cooperation in areas such as health, education, research, innovation and culture.
The meeting was seen as a gesture of solidarity and goodwill from Greece, which has been one of the strongest advocates for the integration of its Balkan neighbors into the EU. Greece has also sought to play a mediating role in resolving some of the regional disputes and promoting regional cooperation.
The participants agreed to continue their dialogue and coordination on a regular basis and to hold another meeting next year in Romania.