EU reaffirms Western Balkan membership perspective

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The Commission presented new measures on 5 March to accelerate EU pre-accession preparations with all the Western Balkan countries, including visa liberalisation, negotiations on a ‘Transport Community’ and better funding for education exchange.

2008 is “a crucial year” for the Western Balkans and their EU perspective, Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said, presenting the Commission’s new Communication on the region. He called upon all countries to step up their efforts, a statement directed particularly at Croatia, which according to Rehn has the brightest membership perspective. 

Regarding Bosnia, the Commission hopes that the Stabilisation and Association Agreement will be signed by EU ministers this April (EURACTIV 29/02/08). Rehn said the main condition, cooperation with the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), had reached “a generally satisfactory level”. 

Rehn also reiterated the clear membership perspective for Kosovo and Serbia, saying that the latter plays a “key role” in the region. The Commissioner, however, urged Serbia to reaffirm its European commitment, responding to moves by leading Serbian politicians to reject deeper EU relations unless the bloc supports Serbia’s claim to Kosovo. 

The EU is still waiting for the Serbian government to sign a Stabilisation and Association Agreement. The signature was scheduled to take place last February but has been delayed due to Serbian concerns that this step would imply its recognition of Kosovo’s independence (EURACTIV 07/02/08).

The Commission said it would remain committed to Kosovo, which is to receive over €1 billion from the EU to assist its development and finance the international presence in the former Serbian province until 2010.

Coordination with international financial institutions and bilateral donors for modernisation and development is also to be stepped up, with the aim of establishing a Western Balkans Investment Framework by 2010, the Commission paper says. 

Annual funding for the Western Balkans amounts to about €800 million, totalling €4 billion until 2011, with Serbia and Croatia receiving the largest sums. The European Investment Bank (EIB) alone will increase its funding from €1.9 billion to €2.8 billion up to 2010. 

The Commission also said that it wants to start negotiations on a ‘Transport Community Treaty’ with the Western Balkans, aiming to establish an integrated market for infrastructure and land, inland waterways and maritime transport. 

Another central goal of the Commission’s proposals is improving conditions for student exchanges, the Communication says. It plans to double the budget by 2010 by making more scholarships available. 

Last year, the EU launched ‘Erasmus Mundus’, its Western Balkans programme designed to enable up to 100 students from the region to undertake masters studies. 

The Commission also intends to make more Community programmes accessible to the countries of the region. Candidate and potential candidate countries can participate in Community programmes on the basis of Framework Agreements with the EU. 

"Transport connections are keys to connecting people and companies. […] Such a transport community is a concrete way of fostering regional cooperation, stability and peace," said Commission Vice-President in charge of transport Jaques Barrot

MEP Doris Pack, German EPP member and chairwoman of Parliament's delegation for relations with South-East Europe, applauded the Commission's proposals, particularly regarding visa facilitation and the higher number of scholarships for students from the region. "We are seeing a new element emerging in our relationship with the region," she believes. 

"It is crucially important for European leaders to have the courage to support and defend these policies in the region, even if it takes ten years or more," said Joost Lagendijk, a Dutch Green Member of the EP's Foreign Affairs Committee,  commenting on the Commission’s initiative.

"They [EU leaders] have to ensure that the region remains a priority and does not take a backseat, something that could have disastrous consequences," he added. 

Thus far, citizens of the Western Balkan countries, with the exception of Croatia, have always needed visas to enter the EU. 

As a first step towards full visa liberalisation, the Commission concluded visa facilitation agreements with the Western Balkan countries, including Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. 

The agreements, which entered into force on 1 January 2008, aim to lower the fees and shorten the time required to issue a visa to the EU. 

The Commission said it would soon propose road-maps outlining the conditions to be met before the visa obligations can be lifted. Dialogue has already started with Serbia and Macedonia, with Albania and Bosnia to follow soon. 

  • 28 March 2008: EU-Western Balkans ministerial meeting in Brdo, Slovenia. 
  • April 2008: Council to sign Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Bosnia. 

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