This week in Sofia: Focus on the Western Balkans

National Palace of Culture; Photo: Bulgarian Presidency 2018 / Yordan Simeonov (EU2018BG) / Flickr

SOFIA – In the following days, Sofia will be the main spot of the key events when it comes to the Western Balkans. Although the topic of the EU-Western Balkans Summit will be the dedicated to the Connectivity Agenda, there will be a plenty of other topics to be discussed on the side events, that are of great importance for the region’s progress.

Aside from the connectivity, some of the main objectives of the Summit will also be to “reaffirm the EU’s commitment towards its Western Balkans partners and reiterate the region’s belonging to the European family,” and to strengthen links between the EU and the Western Balkans in infrastructure, digital and human connectivity.

Additionally, one of the goals of the Summit will be to bring together the Western Balkans and the EU to work more closely together to tackle common challenges, such as security, migration, geopolitical developments and good neighbourly relations.

The connectivity agenda has taken a significant place in the EU plan for the Western Balkans, ever since it was presented at the Berlin Process in 2014. It is believed that improving connectivity within the region, as well as between the Western Balkans and the European Union, is a key factor for growth and jobs and will bring clear benefits for the region’s economies and citizens.

Therefore, the Summit will be the perfect place for the leaders to discuss the deadlock of some of the agreements, but also a chance to make new arrangements and possibly create new initiatives.

It is expected that the leaders arrive in Sofia on Wednesday, 16 May, the day when they will have a joint informal dinner. The plenary session on connectivity will be held the following day, after which the leaders are expected to have a working lunch, where they will discuss how to tackle common challenges.

The meeting will be hosted by Boyko Borisov, Prime Minister of Bulgaria, which currently holds the Presidency of the Council. The presence of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, and the Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn is also expected. The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, will chair the meeting and he will represent the EU together with the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker.

Today, the high-level conference on economic and social cohesion in the Western Balkans was co-organised by TAIEX and the European Economic and Social Committee with the support of the Bulgarian Presidency to the Council of the EU and the Economic and Social Council of the Republic of Bulgaria.

Two side events are due to take place on 16 May.

One of them is the international conference named “Democracy that Delivers: Ten Years Later – Unlocking the Potential of the Western Balkans”, which will be dedicated to the Euro-Atlantic perspective of the Western Balkans, its security and stability, regional development initiatives, but also to the future Austrian Presidency.

Some of the key speakers of the event will be Prime Minister of Macedonia Zoran Zaev, Christian Danielsson, Director General of DG NEAR, Ekaterina Zaharieva, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, Florian Bieber, Director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies of University of Graz, James Mackey, Head of the Euro-Atlantic and Global Partnership Section of NATO Headquarters and many other relevant actors.

The conference is organised by the European Fund for the Balkans and the Center for the Study of the Democracy with the support of European Commission’s DG NEAR.

The second side event that is scheduled for tomorrow is “In Dialogue with the Western Balkans: Creating a Region of Growth, Security and Connectivity on the Path to Europe”.

The event is organised by the Wilfred Martens Centre for European Studies and the European Council on Foreign Relations and will be dedicated to the new perspective for the Western Balkans.

“The 2025 horizon is a new chance for the region the complete all the necessary reforms at home. The EU needs to start debating and communicating this new opportunity not only to policymakers but also to the societies in the region. The public should play the role of a motivating factor for the governments during the next 5-7 years and demand reforms,” it is stated in the agenda.

Some of the speakers of this event will be Boyko Borissov, Prime Minister of Bulgaria, Andrej Plenković, Prime Minister of Croatia, Manfred Weber, Chair of the EPP Group in EP, Eva Maydell, President of the European Movement, Nikola Dimitrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Macedonia, and Angelina Eichhorst, Director for Western Europe at EEAS.

The event of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation “Inequality in the Western Balkans – An impediment for joining the EU?” will be organised the same day.

“The European discourse on ‘transition’ mainly looks at democratization through growth. But might the current enlargement strategy have it wrong after all? Is it truly a ‘functioning market economy’ that leads to democracy? Does not the reverse hold true, that is non-inclusive growth might undermine democratic development?,” reads the announcement.

Two political events will also take place on 16 May – leaders meeting of the the European People’s Party group and leaders meeting of the Party of European Socialists.

The agenda for the EPP meeting will focus on the preparation for the EU-Western Balkans Summit on 16 and 17 May. The EPP President Joseph Daul will host the meeting and the Chairman of the EPP Group in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber, EPP Secretary General Antonio López-Istúriz and the members of the EPP Presidency will participate. The meeting will also include EPP heads of state and government as well as party leaders from Western Balkans countries.

The Party of European Socialists will hold a preparatory meeting of progressive heads of government and party leaders in Sofia on Wednesday to discuss common positions in advance of the official EU-Western Balkans summit on 17 May. The meeting will be chaired by Sergei Stanishev, president of PES and several prime ministers will also attend the meeting – António Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal, Joseph Muscat, Prime Minister of Malta, Zoran Zaev, Prime Minister of Macedonia, and Alexis Tsipras, Prime Minister of Greece.

Later that evening, the European Western Balkans, together with the European Fund for the Balkans, will present a joint initiative – the Balkanoscope, a project presenting first-person stories from the Balkan countries. At the cocktail reception, guests will be able to hear more about this unique joint initiative, and its web platform featuring articles in English and French.

The day after the Summit – on 18 May, the Vienna Economic Forum is organizing the ‘Sofia Talks 2018’, discussion dedicated to the regional cooperation as a part of the European Integration, investments and stability of the region.

The motto of this official side event of the EU-Western Balkans Summit 2018 is “Politics meets Economy” and it will aim to facilitate a direct exchange between the democratically elected leaders from the Western Balkans and high-level representatives of a regional and international economy.

Some of the key speakers of the event will be Lilyana Pavlova, Minister of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union 2018, Ekaterina Zaharieva, Deputy Prime Minister for Judicial Reform and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, Boyko Borissov, PM of Bulgaria, Edi Rama, PM of Albania, Denis Zvizdić, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ramush Haradinaj, PM of Kosovo, Zoran Zaev, PM of Macedonia, Duško Marković, PM of Montenegro, Ana Brnabić, PM of Serbia.

After 15 years of Thessaloniki Summit, it is safe to say that this week in Sofia is what the region needed for a long time. What is left to be seen is will the regional leaders use this opportunity to create initiatives that would be truly beneficial for the citizens.