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    EU Summit on Western Balkans overshadowed by migration tragedy

    EC Audiovisual Services
    EC Audiovisual Services

    The second summit on Western Balkans took place yesterday (27.8) in Vienna. The first one took place in Berlin a year ago, a hundred years after the outbreak of the First World War. The “Berlin process” aims at demonstrating political support for the European perspective of the countries in Western Balkans and promoting regional cooperation between them. Hosted by the Austrian Federal Chancellor Werner Faymann, the summit in Vienna brought together the prime ministers and other ministers of Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as of neighboring Croatia and Slovenia, last year’s host Germany, and future hosts France and Italy.

    The EU member states involved in organizing the summits show a special interest in supporting the countries in Western Balkans. According to a recent study by the Brussels based European Policy Centre, this might reflect the “nationalization” of the enlargement process. However, EU was represented at the summit by three Commissioners.

    In a statement before the summit, Federica Mogherini, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission, said:

    The Western Balkans region faces many challenges, from the urgency to tackle security and migration issues to the need to address economic and political difficulties in many countries. The Western Balkans Summit in Vienna will give us an important opportunity not only to discuss the present challenges, but also our common future.

    One of the main topics on the agenda was the current migration crisis. Ahead of the summit, the European Commission released €1.5 million in humanitarian funding to assist refugees and migrants in Serbia and Macedonia, in addition to € 240 000 in previous grants to the Red Cross in the two countries.

    This is far from enough according to the foreign ministers of Serbia and Macedonia, the two candidate countries which have been become a transit route between member states for migrants and asylum seekers. The summit was overshadowed by a tragic incident when an abandoned truck was found on the highway east of Vienna with the bodies of migrants.

    In a final declaration, the chair of the summit states: “All of the participants agree that particular attention must be paid to the fact that the Western Balkans route has become the primary transit route of mixed irregular migratory flows from the Eastern Mediterranean to the European Union and that this recent development also poses significant challenges for border management and asylum systems in some Western Balkans countries.”

    The declaration adds that “In this context the preparation of a high level conference addressing the challenges of the Western Balkans route is of particular importance with a view to further developing (this) cooperation and support.”

    Compared with the first summit in Berlin, this one in Vienna seems already to have achieved some concrete results. During the summit a number of cooperation agreements were signed by the participating countries, for example to establish a Regional Youth Cooperation Office of the Western Balkans.

    The participants expressed their appreciation of the joint initiative of the Serbian and Kosovo Chambers of Commerce to establish a permanent cooperation platform among all the Western Balkans Chambers of Commerce with the aim to identify and stimulate regional economic cooperation and investment projects.

    The summit focused on the need to improve “connectivity” in the region by investments in infrastructure such as transport and energy. An annex to the declaration includes a pipeline of transport and energy projects. Such common projects will create new jobs and boost economic cooperation in Western Balkans.

    “While there has been good progress in establishing a web of regional cooperation structures over the last years, more efforts are needed to solve outstanding bilateral disputes,” the declaration states. The summit took note of “a study addressing bilateral disputes in the region, which continue to affect the relations between the countries”. The study has not yet become available.

    The participating states welcomed the signature of the border agreement between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro as a first important step in the right direction. With regard to the name dispute between Macedonia and Greece, the summit could only state that “efforts need to be intensified to find a compromise”. For this obviously Greece needs to be invited to next summit.

    On a positive note, the governments of the Western Balkans countries committed themselves in writing to resolve all open bilateral issues. They also agreed that they will not block, or encourage others to block, the progress of neighbors on their respective EU path. They also invited the governments of neighboring EU member states to join this commitment.

    M.Apelblat
    The Brussels Times