The European Union will seek to give a new boost to the six EU hopefuls in the Western Balkans at a summit this week, by steering their talks on a common regional market and signing off on a number of transport and energy projects meant to attract investment to the region and boost its economy.
Leaders of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia will take part in the Western Balkans Summit in Trieste on Wednesday (12 July) together with their counterparts from Italy, Germany, France and the EU.
On top of transport, infrastructure and energy, a key objective of the talks is to flesh out a proposal for a common economic area.
However, it remains unclear how concrete the proposal will be, given the continuing political sensitivities in one of Europe’s poorest regions, where some critics and opinion makers have already balked at the idea of ‘recreating Yugoslavia’ – a country that disintegrated in blood in the 1990s.
Regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations are among the basic conditions for any country to progress towards EU membership. But relations among the six Western Balkan states remain tense, requiring a delicate balancing act from the EU.
“Nobody is talking about a recreation of Yugoslavia,” a senior EU official told reporters on Monday (10 July). “The overall objective is a market of 20 million consumers… It is very important that they among themselves have the connectivity, everything needed to function inter-regionally, and therefore accompany the process of accession and integration.”
The basic idea of the project is to facilitate the circulation of goods, services and capital, ensure a free flow of skilled workers across local borders, help implement the EU’s digital agenda and create a more attractive investment space.
“We will discuss an action plan for a regional economic area that will continue dismantling trade barriers, moving in the direction of creating better investment conditions,” the official stressed. “We want to make sure we have more investment flowing to the region.”
“Equal partners” with the EU
In the area of transport, the summit is expected to produce an agreement with “legally binding relations between the region and the EU. Basically, we will connect the region to the EU, we are all members of transport treaties and this makes us equal partners,” the official said.
The EU will also urge the region to “make much more effort in energy efficiency and start
looking into diversification”. The official noted the region was still heavily dependent on lignite-fuelled power plants “which is extremely polluting and we need to have the move from lignite”.
The options will include refurbishing the existing hydro power plants, or possibly building new ones, after careful assessments of feasibility and environmental concerns.
“These are major infrastructure projects. The countries of the region have a lot of homework to do, it requires preparations. This is EU taxpayers’ money, we are very serious. There is no rush and we have to get it right,” the official said.
Addressing another concern coming from the region – that the common economic area is but a platform to keep the Balkan countries outside, in the status of associates, in a nod to those in the EU who may be unwilling to accept new members – another EU source said:
“There has been a lot of concern about hidden intentions on the EU side to create some alternatives to enlargement. For us, it is the contrary, it is helping the countries meet the criteria. We hope this thing will give them the boost.”
The source noted that the region’s gap with the EU in terms of GDP per capita had only deepened after the financial crisis.
“On top of political criteria, the countries need to meet the EU convergence criteria and they are far away and lagging behind,” the source said but added that even discussions about concrete projects in the region are burdened by the legacy of the recent past.
“The past comes up in almost every discussion we have. We don’t shy away from reminding people of their responsibilities. At the same time, the key message is ‘how can we help you move forward’. It is important to see how we work towards the future, reconciliation, it is really about where you want to take this,” the source concluded.