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Southeast Europe Foreign Ministers' Conference: EU should invest more and engage more

Sigmar Gabriel; Photo: European Parliament

The Aspen Institute organised its eighth Southeast Europe Foreign Ministers’ conference – a high-level exchange on economic and political development of the region which took place on 30 May in Berlin. The public event was comprised of the Panel Discussion on the Economic Development of the Western Balkans and the Southeast European foreign ministers’ Panel Discussion on Euro-Atlantic Integration in Times of Crises.

Economic panel: Substantial progress achieved, rule of law the biggest problem

The participants of the pnel discussion on the economic development were Anita Richter, Programme Manager for Economic Reforms, South East Europe Division of OECD, Bojan Predojević, Managing Director of Profine d.o.o. and member of the Boards of German-Serbian Chamber of Commerce and Forum Serbia-Germany, Goran Svilanović, Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council, Mark Vasic, Senior Manager of International Regulatory Affairs of Deutsche Telekom AG and Caroline King, Global Director – Business Support Digital Government. They first discussed the progress made after the 2008 crisis hit the region and then singled out the most important challenges which need to be dealt with in the near future.

It was agreed that a substantial progress has been achieved over the previous decade. It can be seen in the stable economic growth across the region, improved competitiveness of regional economies, improving legal and political conditions attracting a growing number of investors, a satisfying trade balance and the creation of approximately the same amount of jobs that were lost in the 2008 crisis. Even though the regional GDP per capita is still considerably lower than the one we currently see in the EU, it has reached the one Bulgaria had when it joined the EU.

The biggest challenge related to future economic development of the region is the sometimes tottering rule of law. In other words, the WB countries should work more on assuring stable legal and political environment which would attract new investors.

Enhancing trade relations among the Western Balkan countries were mentioned as the second most important element of regional development potential. The idea was particularly advocated by Mark Vasic and Goran Svilanović. They found CEFTA to be an excellent example of such co-operation which should be elaborated in the future.

Anita Richter pointed out that the OECD solutions, including, for example, special economic zones based on tax incentives seem to be very successful as they attracted more than 400 companies investing around 2, 5 billion euros. However, we should wait to see what their long term influence is – will the companies leave the countries after the “tax holidays” are over?

Ministers of Foreign Affairs: EU should invest more and engage more

Czech Foreign Minister Lubomír Zaorálek and German Federal Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel made an introduction to the political part of discussion including the following speakers: Ditmir Bushati, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Albania, Igor Crnadak, Minister of Foreign Affairs of of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Srđan Darmanović, Minister of Foreign Affairs of of Montenegro, Jakub Dürr, Assistant to the Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs, Andreas Michaelis, political director at the German Federal Foreign Office, Tomislav Lendić, Assistant to the Croatian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Albert Prenkaj, General Director at the Kosovo Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Zoran Vujić, political director at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Serbia.

Gabriel emphasized an idea remaining present until the very end of the discussion – the EU has to work much more on its visibility in the region. It should invest more and engage more. It is particularly important at this moment, when tensions have increased, political divisions within societies have been transferred to the region, ethnic divisions which seemed to be overcome have re-emerged, and the process lost its appeal among the population. The problematic situation is caused by home-grown problems as well as the impression that the EU has left the region. Additional financial means should reduce the social hardship.

Michaelis added that it should be achieved through concrete common projects and that the number of the projects needs to be significantly increased. Financial resources should not be seen as a problem, since the consequences of failing to change the current state would certainly be much more expensive for Germany and the EU. The change does not have to be an emotional change, but it certainly needs to be directed towards increasing the credibility of the integration process. The idea should be further discussed within the framework of Berlin process.

Other prominent topics were the sustainability of the “Regatta” principle, growing nationalist rhetoric in the region, and the strengthening of the rule of law. Vujić suggested that, even though the Western Balkan countries should co-operate and support each other’s development and EU path, they should be able to join the EU whenever they meet the required conditions independently from other countries in the region. Otherwise, we would be at risk of dealing with the serious problem of internal fatigue and disappointment in the EU. When commenting the rise of nationalist rhetoric in his country in particular, Prenkaj said that it has a lot to do with the election period and it should not be seen as a serious problem in general.

As it was stressed during the previous panel on economic development, the participants of the panel on the Euro-Atlantic integration reiterated that there is much to be done in the field of strengthening the rule of law. This is an inevitable step towards joining the EU. Michaelis stressed that there would not be any “geopolitical discount” because the rule of law is one of the EU’s trademarks and every member should put high importance on it.

Zaorálek and Dürr added that the political experience of Central and Eastern European countries showed that connectivity, people interacting and knowing each other, led to overcoming political tensions. It is usually followed by a successful common engagement around the most important common political goals.  They wished success the newly launched Western Balkans Fund, which is expected to bring a lot of success when the abovementioned is considered.

Aleksandra Radu, EWB Berlin

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