Slovenia surprisingly joins Balkan regional body

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Slovenia, a country that since its independence from former Yugoslavia has insisted that it belongs to the Adriatic and Alpine regions, has surprisingly joined the Southeast European Cooperation Process (SEECP), a regional body centered on the Western Balkans. EURACTIV Turkey contributed to this article.

Slovenia on Wednesday (23 June) became the 12th member of the Southeast European Cooperation Process (SEECP), a regional forum (see 'Background').

The country has become the fourth EU member of this organisation following Bulgaria, Greece and Romania.

Slovenian President Danilo Tuerk, who is attending a SEECP summit in Istanbul, Turkey, said Slovenia was looking forward to being part of the initiative in this dynamic and promising region.

Diplomats told EURACTIV that the fact that EU member Slovenia, a country neighbouring Austria and Italy, was interested in regional cooperation with the Western Balkans was "extremely encouraging".

"It means that initiatives such as SEECP and RCC work," said a diplomat from one of the more recent EU member states. On the negative side, he added that strengthening the format of regional cooperation could also be seen as a sign that the EU had no immediate plans to take onboard the EU hopefuls from the region, with the exception of Croatia.

The two-day Istanbul summit, which ends today and was attended by Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle, marked the passing of the SEECP presidency baton from Turkey to Montenegro.

"I am fully confident that the momentum achieved under Turkey's presidency will be further increased with the Presidency of Montenegro," said Turkish President Abdullah Gül, quoted by the Turkish press.

Gül said Turkey dreamed of a Balkan region that embraces democratic values and the highest standards in human rights, fully integrated with the European and Euro-Atlantic organisations.

Turkey lobbies for Kosovo

The Turkish president also said developing extensive and comprehensive policies were the key to finding lasting solutions to existing problems in the Balkans.

He said those policies should embrace all countries in the Balkans including Kosovo.

"Regardless of our position on Kosovo's status, we should all make Kosovo a part of regional cooperation," said Gül.

Kosovo, which declared independence unilaterally on 17 February 2008, is not a member of SEECP. Two members of the regional body, Greece and Romania, do not recognise the former Serbian province as an independent state.

A Turkish spokesperson said the final declaration of the SEECP summit should mention that Kosovo should be accepted as a part of the region and the issue solved through diplomatic ways.

Gül concluded his speech with a call for concerted action against terrorism. "I believe that against this asymmetrical threat all countries should be in cooperation and solidarity and the international community should stand united against terrorism," said Gül.

In recent days, Turkey suffered from series of attacks by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels, who have killed more than 50 soldiers over the last two months in some of the worst fighting in years in the mainly Kurdish southeast.

In his speech, EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle said unresolved bilateral issues in the region "are baggage which will only become heavier on your respective paths towards European integration".

"In this context, let me stress, that on Kosovo, Belgrade and Pristina shall tackle the expected ICJ Opinion as an opportunity," he said, referring to the ruling on the legality of Kosovo's independence by the International Court of Justice, expected in late July.

"Open bilateral issues shall be addressed urgently everywhere in the region. And I will continue to repeat this message again and again," Füle said.

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou expressed his willingness to resolve problems with Macedonia. Papandreou, who is also foreign minister, said at the SEECP summit that Greece was ready to find a shared solution to a problem they had with Macedonia about the country's name, the Turkish press reported. He added that this would be an important symbol for the region.

Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who also addressed the Istanbul summit, said everybody should be respected in Europe without considering their ethnic identity and religion. He said new cultural bridges could be built by focusing on similarities, not differences.

Referring to the importance of finding a solution to disagreements in the region through peaceful means, Gruevski said: "We may open a new page in that case. This will open an area of peace and carry us to success."

Referring to disagreements between Macedonia and Greece, Gruevski added that peoples of the two countries had been living together for thousands of years.

Speaking to the press, Gruevski said that UN mediator Matthew Nimetz would keep seeking ideas for the name row settlement that should not bring harm to neither Greece nor Macedonia and its citizens, adding that the latter are to make the final decision on the matter via referendum, the Macedonian agency MINA reported.

Commenting on his brief meeting earlier with Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, Gruevski expressed his belief that Athens had finally understood that Macedonia wants to see the name row settled.

Papandreou said in his address that the prime ministers of both countries wanted a solution, which is a good sign, Gruevski told reporters.

As for expectations for new proposal from Nimetz, Gruevski said the mediator had frequent consultations with both parties and most probably sought a solution he considered would not be refused. "However, I cannot make any predictions," he added.

Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov said at the Istanbul SEECP summit that the 'Europe 2020' strategy for growth should be adapted to the Western Balkans, Focus agency reported. He said that this was important, because the Balkans were the next stage of EU enlargement.

Parvanov also stressed the importance of visa liberalisation to ensure free communication between people in the European area. Bulgaria was one of the initiators of the process of visa liberalisation between the EU and Western Balkan countries, he said.

Parvanov expressed confidence that by the end of this year citizens from all the region's countries will enjoy visa-free travel in the European Union.

Serbian President Boris Tadi? said in Istanbul that the EU "has to be honest and say if it wants to accept all countries of the region". The Union should also reveal "if is prepared to work with them in a very practical way to ensure the existing criteria is fulfilled," Tadi? said.

"Only when all of Southeast Europe is fully integrated into the EU can the promised peace dividend that arose at the end of the Cold War be fulfilled. Only then will democratic prosperity, economic security and social equality be fully entrenched in each and every nation which shares this region as their common home," Tadi? said, quoted by B92 agency.

Turkish President Abdullah Gül said that his country saw European Union "as a body of values, a civilisation project". He strongly lobbied for his country's EU accession, and warned that member countries should not delay the process.

"Our ways will intersect under the EU umbrella. We are certain. We, as the countries in the region, are determined to proceed in this direction. There is no doubt about it. On the other hand, we expect of the EU to avoid steps to delay full membership process and to support candidate countries," said Gül.

Gul also advocated improving the image of the Balkans.

"We should prevent the Balkans from being mistakenly known as inexorable, strange and complex piece of land. We should turn this land into a place of mutual understanding and tolerance as it was in the past […] Turkey sees all countries in the Balkans, whether they have a common border or not, as its neighbours," added Gul.

The South East European Co-operation Process (SEECP) was launched at Bulgaria's initiative in 1996, with the aim of fostering regional cooperation in an environment in which at the time several countries did not even speak to each other.

The founding members of SEECP are Bulgaria, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Turkey. Croatia, Moldova and Montenegro joined later.

SEECP leaders hold annual meetings, usually on the occasion of changing presidencies. SEECP provides political guidance to the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), a secretariat based in Sarajevo, in charge of promoting regional cooperation.

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