On May 17, the EU-Western Balkan Summit took place in Sofia, Bulgaria. For the first time after almost 15 years, leaders gathered and reaffirmed their commitment to enhance cooperation between the region and the European Union. EU Member States’ heads of state or government met the leaders from six Western Balkans partners (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Kosovo).
This was the first major meeting ever since the first EU-Western Balkans meeting in Thessaloniki in 2003. Only in March last year, the European Council stressed the need for commitment and engagement on all levels to support the region in its EU-oriented reforms. The first official document to adopt these reforms was established in February of this year.
Sofia declaration – Priority Agenda
Last week’s Sofia summit produced the Sofia declaration, a document aimed at defining six key commitments to drive further EU-Western Balkans cooperation.
The first focus is on security and migration. EU leaders and Balkan representatives agreed on working together to counter terrorism and prevent radicalization through the Western Balkans Counter-Terrorism initiative. Moreover, to tackle the persistent uncontrolled flow of migration to Europe, countries confirmed the desire to improve cooperation between liaison officers deployed by the EU Member States and competent authorities operating in a region.
Second, countries agreed on strengthening the rule of law in the region by implementing efficient judicial reforms to fight corruption and organized crime. Furthermore, the declaration sets out the creation of a European Endowment for Democracy program aimed at guaranteeing pluralistic media and civil society. From a consulting perspective, European leaders proposed to introduce a trial monitoring in the field of serious corruption and organized crime.
A third focus of cooperation concerns the support of socio-economic development with a special focus on youth. Western Balkan leaders underlined the need to expand the Western Balkans Investment Framework, so it will attract and coordinate new bilateral donors and the International Financing Institutions’ investments. They also emphasized the importance of boosting the regional Framework of guarantees to deluge in private investment. In the field of education, countries agreed on increasing Erasmus+ funding and on developing The Western Balkan Youth Lab 2018 to provide space for innovative education and tackle brain drain.
Fourth, the declaration highlighted the need to create a new set of connectivity projects through the Western Balkans Investment Framework and the current provisions of the Connecting Europe Facility. Because of disagreements on how to run the energy market, it remains unclear if the EU Energy Union – which focuses on energy security and both supplier and source diversification – will expand to this region.
Fifth is the Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans, which should be launched soon and include a roadmap to facilitate lowering the cost of roaming.
Sixth and last is the support in dispute settlement and good neighborly relations, a very delicate matter for the region. The EU will support the fight against impunity through two main frameworks: the Mechanism for the International Criminal Tribunals and the EULEX (the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo). Leaders also emphasized that a promotion of deepening links among civil societies will help to overcome conflicts and political fights in the Western Balkans.
What is next?
The last fifteen years did not show much of improvement and now the situation has become even more challenging for Western Balkans leaders. The Sofia Priority Agenda touched sensitive topics for the region, yet no immediate actions can be expected from the European counterpart. Furthermore, the wording of the declaration showed once again that European leaders are avoiding the topic of Kosovo’s recognition. The paper doesn’t mention Western Balkan “countries”, but only the word “partners”. Moreover, persistent disputes between Macedonia and Greece do not help alleviate the tension. As a result, there is reason to believe that peaceful settlement in the region appears unachievable in this situation.
Serbia’s and Montenegro’s proposed membership date by 2025 was not fully welcomed by many EU governments, especially the German. Commitments for the Western Balkans to join the European bloc should therefore not be expected in the next five years, showing that, unfortunately, it seems that the region needs to wait another fifteen years to be fully acknowledged.
Author: Irina Kruhmalova