Western Balkans given incentives
EU pushed for common regional market at a summit in Trieste
14 July, 2017
The leaders of some of EU’s biggest economies, including Germany’s Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, offered incentives to the states in the Western Balkans to move closer to joining the world’s largest trading bloc and stabilise the continent’s most volatile region. The meeting on the Western Balkans (the so-called Berlin Process) was held in the Italian city of Trieste on 12 July with representatives from six Balkan countries - Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania. However, all of them have been frustrated by the slow pace of EU accession. Their joining was put firmly on the backburner by some Western EU states as they grappled with crises of migration, Brexit, populism and Eurozone debt.
Almost two decades following Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II, most of the fragments of 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 EU members are trying to coax the region of 20 million people into embracing the bloc’s economic and democratic values.
The leaders were set to endorse the idea of creating a regional economic area and discuss €220m in aid for infrastructure projects, European Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said.
“We have a shared task in ensuring that these countries develop properly and can draw closer to the EU, step by step,” Merkel told reporters. “Political stability in this region also means political stability for us - we know that.”
The Trieste summit reviewed progress in the implementation of the projects that were launched at the 2015 and 2016 summits and welcomed the start of important construction works. More will follow before the end of the year. The participants agreed on seven additional connectivity projects with a total investment of over €500m, of which €194m in EU grant co-financing and the balance loans from the EIB and the EBRD and national funding by the Western Balkans. This brings total connectivity funding since 2015 to more than €1.4bn for a total of 20 investment projects.
The Connectivity agenda focusing on regional and TEN-T relevant transport and energy infrastructure and reforms is moving forward and delivering results. It will remain the key item on our agenda: well-connected and functioning infrastructure networks drive economic growth, provide business opportunities, attract investments and generate jobs.
Non-EU Balkan countries, however, were concerned that the forum in the Italian city was only meant to calm their spirits, not to advance their EU membership. The meeting had been convened by the EU to nudge them toward greater economic integration but looked set to fall short of hopes for a full customs union.
The EU should seize on the hunger of Balkan nations for membership as an opportunity to “feel attractive”, Macedonia’s Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov told the forum. Kosovo Foreign Minister Enver Hoxhaj told Reuters that his government had managed to take talk of a customs union off the table. Instead, the countries were pushed to sign up to the creation of a “regional economic cooperation area”.
Bosnia was the only Western Balkan country not to join the transport community formed among the other five Western Balkan states and the EU at the summit, the Commission said. According to Bosnian media, the country did not have the blessing of one of its entities, the Serb Republic.
Involving Western Balkans in more youth exchange programs will also help erase some of the bad memories of the wars that have ravaged the Balkans over the last 20 years.
The Western Balkan countries' preparation for joining the EU will be one of the priorities during the upcoming Bulgarian EU Presidency next year, said in Trieste Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. He attended the event at the invitation of his Italian counterpart Paolo Gentiloni, who hosted the forum's conclusive plenary dinner. Addressing the leaders, Borisov stressed the importance of connectivity between the Western Balkan countries striving towards EU membership, and the other European countries. According to him, it will not only help develop economic ties, but also build trust between the countries and their peoples. According to the Bulgarian Prime Minister, the Western Balkans must be assisted mostly along the North-South axis. He noted the exceptional importance of including Corridor 8 in the Berlin Process and connecting Sofia to the Macedonian capital of Skopje with a railway and a motorway. The connecting infrastructure will truly offer a new perspective for the Balkans' development, he underscored.