07 August 2019

Searching for the European Union in Poznan. The summit for Western Balkans’s integration

Stelian Teodorescu

Between 4 and 5 July 2019, the Polish city of Poznan hosted Summit VI on the Western Balkans, an yearly event within the German initiative “The Berlin Process” regarding the European integration of Western Balkan states.

Image source: Mediafax

An event with a rich agenda

The summit was again attended this year by the chiefs of government, foreign ministers and economy ministers from the states aspiring to EU accession, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH), Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, as well as from two EU member states in the region, Croatia and Slovenia.

Other EU member states also took part at the summit, such as Austria, Bulgaria, France, Greece, Germany, Poland, the United Kingdom, Italy, as well as representatives of the EU, of international financial institutions or the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) and the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (a total of approximately 1,500 individuals, including over 1,000 foreign guests, but also other European officials; among them were German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British PM Theresa May, French PM Edouard Phillipe, OECD chief Jose Angel Gurria, EU diplomacy chief Federica Mogherini and EU enlargement commissioner, Johannes Hahn).

Prior to the ministerial meeting (04.07.2019) and the Summit of leaders (05.07.2019), the event also included a Think Tank Forum[1] (03.07.2019, which was attended by approximately 200 European NGOs), a Civil Society Forum (04.07.2019) – a platform to exchange experience and cooperation among NGOs, as well as a Business Forum (04.07.2019), whose purpose was to help entrepreneurs make ties and deepen their professional knowledge.

The summit’s agenda was in accordance with the priorities set out by the Polish presidency of the Berlin Process: economy, connectivity, civil society and security.

According to statements made by Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov and Bulgarian Foreign Affairs Minister Ekaterina Zakharieva, the next summit will be hosted by North Macedonia and Bulgaria. Leaders in Skopje were praised for obtaining a historical success in the process to solve the dispute with Greece, which is now given as an example for good neighbouring

The EU is not giving up on the Western Balkans

The high-level meeting in Poznan follows previous summits in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Trieste and London, as well as the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia, in 2018.

The leaders who took part in the event reaffirmed the idea that the Berlin Process proves the EU’s commitment to transform the Western Balkans into a stable, safe and prosperous region, with the area deemed to be part of a Europe which shares common values, the same history and geography, the same cultural heritage and a future defined by common challenges and opportunities. In this context, participating leaders unanimously restated their unequivocal support to the Western Balkans’ European perspective, with the Polish Government reiterating its conviction that the future of the entire region lies with the EU.

At the same time, the leaders of Western Balkan states reaffirmed their commitment to consolidate the rule of law, fundamental rights and fair governing in the region. They agreed on the importance of regional cooperation, good neighbourhood relations and reconciliation, elements which are considered essential to the for the region to progress on its European path. At the same time, the leaders of Western Balkans entities committed to overcome current difficulties in the region to realize substantial progresses in fields such as regional economic integration and connectivity in the benefit of citizens and economic operators. Furthermore, chiefs of government, foreign, economy and interior ministers from the Western Balkans, together with their counterparts from several European states and high-level representatives from the EU stated their availability to consolidate regional cooperation between the Western Balkans entities in the region and the EU.

In this context, the EU has reconfirmed its commitment to strengthen cooperation with the region through a series of practical measures:

1. Consolidate connectivity in the field of transports and energy both within the region, as well as between the region and the EU as well as a key factor for economic growth, creating jobs and generating clear benefits for the economies and citizens of the region and the EU. The following proposals were presented in the fields of transports and energy:

  • a new connectivity package worth EUR 180 million. Implemented through the Western Balkans Investments Framework, subsidies for eight new transports and energy projects (traffic, railway, energy infrastructure) will contribute to reaching the objectives on the connectivity agenda and is expecting to attract investments of up to EUR 728 million. The projects will support the modernization of a common border railway station, the installation of signalling and telecommunications objectives over more than 100 km of railways, the construction and modernization of more than 30 km of motorway, more than 100 km of electricity lines and construction of 68 km of interconnected gas pipelines;
  • subsidies worth EUR15 million to improve traffic safety and the functioning of border points in the region. The subsidies aim to improve traffic conditions on sectors with a high rate of accidents, while the border point improvements will result in saved times for citizens and heavy vehicles;
  • an action plan to enact the regional railway strategy, aiming to improve connectivity both within the region and with the EU and grow competitivity in the railway sector through more reliable, cost-effective and safer operations.

2. Stimulate the region’s digital transformation in order to support the transition towards a digital economy and to bring the benefits of digital transformation to the region, such as faster economic growth, more jobs and better services. The leaders praised the enactment, on 01.07.2019 of the Regional Roaming Agreement.

The agreement is an important achievement of the Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans and a first example of the benefits of regional cooperation. Consumers will be able to benefit from a substantial reduction of their roaming tariffs in the region, with prices going down up to eight times. With regards to large-bandwidth connectivity, an important element for the region’s digital economy, new subsidies of EUR1.65 million for three projects supporting the development of national large bandwidth and improving digital connectivity in Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia were announced.

3. Support social-economic development, economic integration and the growth of green/ecologic economy, as follows:

  • progresses made within the Guarantee Instrument were reported. Launched at the beginning of 2019 under the Western Balkans Investment Framework, with an initial EU commitment of up to EUR150 million, the guarantee aims to mobilize investments of up to EUR1 billion into long-term social-economic development and regional integration;
  • letters of intent were signed together with international financial institutions in order to consolidate the development and innovation of Western Balkans enterprises with a further EUR20 million, increasing the financial resources made available for Western Balkans SME’s.

4. Support the social-economic integration of the Romani people. A Declaration of Romani Integration was approved towards this purpose. The leaders committed to take the necessary measures in order to obtain solid results in employment, housing, education, health, civil registration and tackling discrimination.

5. In the fields of climate and the environment, the leaders approved the Common Statement on “The Western Balkans’ Transition to Green/Clean Energy”, signed on 21.02.2019. In order to generate this impulse, the region’s efforts to draft a Green Agenda for the Western Balkans will be supported. This would strengthen regional cooperation and bring benefits to the well-being and health of citizens in the region and neighbouring EU member states, at the same time building on the potential of the green economy, with low CO2 emissions. The leaders confirmed their commitment towards an ambitious environmental agenda to fight climate change.

6. Accelerate actions on security cooperation. The leaders who attended the summit reviewed progresses made in the cooperation between the Western Balkans and the EU in order to approach common security threats, including the fight against terrorism, radicalization, cyberattacks, hybrid threats, organized crime and arms trafficking. Furthermore, talks were held on the link between corruption and security, with entities in the region reiterating their commitment to fight corruption.

7. Step up regional cooperation and neighbourhood relations. Regional cooperation and good neighbourhood relations are at the centre of the Western Balkans’ accession process to the EU, which also involves a long-term and sincere reconciliation. Due to this, the summit was an opportunity for Western Balkans partners to discuss bilateral issues and the heritage of the past, such as war crimes and missing persons.

8. The EU continues to support youth involvement in the Western Balkans – cooperation in this field is essential to grow regional connectivity – in numerous projects, such as the Marie Sklodowska-Curie actions, the Creative Europe and Erasmus+ programs, but also Youth in Action. Furthermore, the EU supports the activity of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) to promote reconciliation and cooperation between young individuals in the region.

Optimistic messages – still unclear accession deadlines

EU High Representatives Federica Mogherini highlighted the fact that the “EU’s Commitment towards the Western Balkans is a priority. Today, all the six Western Balkans partners are closer to the EU compared to when the current EU leaders’ terms began nearly five years ago. The European perspective remains the engine for change in the region. Regional cooperation, good neighbourhood relations and reconciliation are essential and support the Western Balkans’ European integration”.

European Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn stated the following: “The activity to modernize infrastructure is intensifying, digitalization is supported, investments are made into the green and circular economy[2]. EU programs will bring tangible benefits for the Western Balkans population and will represent another cornerstone in the EU’s tighter relations with the region.”

The EU official sent a very clear message highlighting the fact that the Western Balkans are an incontestable part of Europe, which should be integrated as quickly as possible. He also invited his counterparts to bring Albania and North Macedonia closer to the EU without delay, otherwise the Union’s credibility could be undermined. Despite this, the EU official appealed to Western Balkan leaders to continue strengthening democratic and neighbourhood institutions and cooperate more tightly with the European family. In the same context, he brought back into discussion the commercial barriers Kosovo instated against Serbia and BIH, encouraging the parts to solve these disagreements hastily.

Another EU official, Transports Commissioner Violeta Bulc[3], added that: “The EU is very content with the approval of several regional projects in cooperation with the Transports Community[4]. These will improve traffic safety and the efficiency of railways, will reduce time and transports costs and will eliminate traffic blockages. Better connectivity means supporting the everyday life of people in the region and getting them closer to the EU”.

In the same context, we should remark the statement made by Montenegrin Foreign Minister Srdjan Darmanovic, who said during the summit’s diplomatic chiefs meeting that there is no alternative for the European integration of the Western Balkans and that the EU’s enlargement policy should be continued as is very important, with the Western Balkans being an important part of Europe.

Last but not least, we should also mention the opinion expressed by Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Szymon Szynkowsi vel Sek, who was responsible with organizing the summit. He said that Poland wants the participants at the Poznan event to agree to launch EU accession negotiations in October 2019. In that context, the Polish official stated the following: “Poland is an advocate for this step and will try to convince participating leaders and ministers to take this decision. It will also encourage countries in the Western Balkans to introduce internal reforms and stabilize bilateral relations”.

As there were points of view expressed against a new EU enlargement, the aspiring Western Balkans entities stated their intention to search for reassurance from the EU on finalizing this process. No timeframe was set for their accession, even if individual requests were filed more than ten years ago, and the latest EU strategy for the region proposes accession for Montenegro and Serbia by 2025, with this objective being considered ambitious. In this context, there are concerns that a significant delay of the Western Balkans integration in the EU could leave the region open to the influence of Russia, which continues to use a vast array of instruments and exploits its religious and cultural ties with Serbia, the Serbian entity in BIH, Montenegro and North Macedonia. It could also be open to the influence of Turkey, which is deepening its religious, cultural and educational ties with Muslim communities in the regions. Last but not least, it could be influence by China, which aims to develop economic and technical cooperation with the entire region, except Kosovo, for which it refuses to recognize its independence.

Translated by Ionut Preda

[1] Within the Berlin Process, three platforms to strengthen cooperation between the Western Balkans states and the EU were created: the Civil Society Forum, the Business Forum and the Youth Forum.

[2] Circular economy covers a larger spectrum than the production and consumption of goods and services, including the switch to renewable energy, as well as the role of diversity as a characteristic of resilient and productive systems

[3] Slovenian politician who took over the EU transports commissioner office on 01.11.2014

[4] The Transports Community is an international organization formed out of the EU and the six Western Balkan entities. Its main objective is to extend the EU’s transports market rules, principles and policy to the entire Western Balkans region, through a judicially mandatory framework.