TRIESTE, Italy (AP) — European Union leaders and their Western Balkan counterparts pressed Wednesday for continued economic integration amid Russia's increasing influence in the region and the EU's own troubles with Brexit, migration and security fears.
Italian Premier Paolo Gentiloni hosted Wednesday's EU-Balkans summit in the northern port of Trieste, a symbolic bridge city between the EU and the Balkans. It's the fourth such summit since German Chancellor Angela Merkel launched the series of annual meetings with EU aspirants Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia in 2014.
The European Commission is expected to announce new funding to boost economic growth in the region. Balkan leaders, meanwhile, are expected to sign a treaty on integrating their transport networks and adopt a plan to create a regional economic area.
The EU is keen to show it's still committed to the Balkans even though the official enlargement process is on hold until 2019, and the bloc itself is fraught with its own problems — Brexit and tamping down migration leading the list.
The EU's interest has been fueled by reports of growing influence by Russia in the Balkans, a region that Moscow considers a traditional area of interest. Russian efforts have been mostly visible in Serbia, with Moscow-funded news outlets and boosted economic and military ties. Serbia remains Russia's last remaining ally after another historic partner, Montenegro, made a decisive turn toward the West by joining NATO this year.
The EU also fears renewed instability in the Balkans, which went through a bloodbath during its 1990s ethnic wars.
"Political stability in the region is also political stability for us," Merkel said at the start of the summit.
Tensions and stepped up nationalist rhetoric have been simmering between Serbia and Croatia, as well as between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008. The split hasn't been recognized by Belgrade.
There have also been political tensions in Macedonia and an attempted coup in Montenegro during its October election that was allegedly orchestrated by Russia to avert Montenegro's NATO bid.
Even EU member states Croatia and Slovenia have been involved in a territorial dispute stemming from the 1990s breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Croatia doesn't recognize an international arbitration ruling last month on its border dispute with Slovenia.
Going into the summit, Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano urged Balkan leaders to put their differences and pasts behind them and press ahead with integration for the sake of regional peace and economic growth.
"We must overcome internal divisions and the recriminations of the past and make an irreversible European choice," he said in an article published in the Corriere della Sera. "Only through dialogue and a strong push to reconciliation can we look with optimism to the future."
Nicole Winfield reported from Rome, and Jovana Gec from Belgrade, Serbia.