Speech by Commissioner Füle – Regional Cooperation in the Balkans: Time for a new boost

Stefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood

Regional Cooperation in the Balkans: time for a new boost

EPC Policy Dialogue on Regional Cooperation in the Balkans, Brussels, 30 April 2012


Dear friends,

Today’s European Policy Centre debate on regional cooperation in the Balkans comes at a crucial juncture for the region and for the structures of regional cooperation. The momentum is positive.

• Croatia will become a Member State of the European Union on 1 July 2013.

• Serbia has been granted candidate status.

• Montenegro is sustaining its course towards European Union membership. I look forward to accession negotiations being opened still under the Danish presidency.

I am convinced of the importance of continuing with this process so that the Balkan countries, as well as the EU, can benefit from the transformative power that enlargement brings to their societies and economies.

Just last week, at the international Donors’ Conference in Sarajevo, an important page in the history of the region was turned. I had the opportunity to see at first-hand how Regional Cooperation can transform the lives of ordinary people by solving the housing needs of approximately 74,000 refugees and displaced persons. This is a shining example of the region’s ability to achieve ownership of the solution to common issues.

Before turning to the more recent developments on regional cooperation, allow me to say a few words on the progress achieved to-date, which is anything but negligible. Sometimes it is easy to forget how far the region has travelled since the end of the wars in the 1990s.

The first instance of political regional cooperation after the end of the war came with the formation of the South East European Cooperation Process in 1996, which has developed into the “voice of the region” and is now also the political umbrella of the Regional Cooperation Council.

The enlarged Central European Free Trade Agreement which entered into force in November 2007 is helping to open the economies of the Balkans, bringing in trade and investment and creating conditions for economic and social development.

Let me mention a number of recent examples:

• The institutionalisation of the Regional School for Public Administration is making a positive contribution to the modernization of public administrations. The school is establishing itself as a suitable regional platform for networking and exchange of good regional practices.

• Through the Energy Treaty, the countries are committed to establishing a competitive, secure and sustainable integrated energy market at regional level. This creates clear benefits for the consumers through greater security of supply and more competitive prices.

• The countries have established International Law Enforcement Cooperation Units. This has substantially improved the flow of information both within and between the countries of the region, and thus significantly reduced the time it takes for law enforcement agencies to answer important and urgent enquiries related to criminal investigations to combat corruption and organised crime.

• Sectoral regional cooperation has also developed rapidly, with the establishment of the Energy Community, the South East Europe Transport Observatory, the signing of the European Common Aviation Area Agreement. I do not need to go into the details of the forty-plus sectoral regional initiatives that bring together policy-makers and experts from the region.

The establishment of the Regional Cooperation Council, [and I am happy to see Secretary General Hido Biscevic today on this panel] marked another step in regional cooperation as it led to increasing regional ownership. As you know, the Regional Cooperation Council took over from the Stability Pact in 2008, placing regional cooperation in the hands of the region itself.

The European Union – has been firm in its support, political as well as financial of the Regional Cooperation Council. We are currently financing around one-third of the costs of the Regional Cooperation Council’s Secretariat, as well as financing two initiatives that the Regional Cooperation Council took over in 2011, the Ljubljana Process on Cultural Rehabilitation, and the South East Europe Investment Committee. Both are part of the Regional Cooperation Council’s Strategy and Work Programme for 2011-2013. We are committed to assisting the Regional Cooperation Council in successfully completing, the implementation of the Strategy.

We are also looking to the future. Regional cooperation is not static – it is a dynamic process, and its structures should also evolve in order to better reflect the developments on the ground. So how do we see the Regional Cooperation Council after 2013, when the current Strategy should be completed? The proliferation of regional initiatives and activities demands a stronger monitoring of these activities, and we look to the Regional Cooperation Council to play a leading role in this respect. What does this mean in practice? Let me give you a few concrete examples:

By conducting an analysis of the transport networks in the region, the relevant regional structures may conclude that there is a series of gaps that needs to be filled – not only concerning infrastructure, which is also looked at by the South East Europe Transport Observatory – but gaps that have to be filled in order to ensure more efficient border-crossing, for example, or more efficient customs’ handling.

On Justice and Home Affairs I firmly believe that regional cooperation should focus not only on fighting corruption and organised crime, important though these are. It should also tackle the lack of mutual execution of sentences in criminal matters, and of enforcement of court rulings. Legal obstacles that allow criminals to cross borders with impunity have to be removed and these gaps bridged. Fighting impunity and making sure convicted criminals serve their sentences will bring immediate and tangible benefits for all the people of the region, enhancing the rule of law.

For regional cooperation to succeed it has to be owned and driven at regional level and it has to deliver real benefits to citizens by focusing on aspects which affect their daily lives. Regional cooperation is an essential element of the Stabilisation and Association Process, and, thus, one of the criteria for the evaluation of candidates and potential candidates.

Regional cooperation is even more than that – it is a cornerstone of European integration. It is one of the founding principles of the European Union itself. It has an inherent value for the region, for the accession process and beyond.

Each and every aspirant and candidate country in the Western Balkans is judged based on its merits and it is important to understand that this judgement and our decisions are not being made in a vacuum. There are regional aspects to be taken into account. I’m not saying that regional aspects represent a balancing act to the merit based approach; rather it is regional cooperation and the regional approach that will ensure that whatever decision is made by the European Union based on individual merit, it contributes to and strengthens the regional dimension of our enlargement strategy.

Let me turn to reconciliation and the integration process. Reconciliation is important for making peace with a troubling past without forgetting it. At the same time it provides the opportunity to address a number of open issues today and in the future such as border issues or other painful consequences of the recent conflict in the region. The integration process should prove to be the most efficient framework to address those issues and regional cooperation is the most effective instrument.

That brings me to the agreement reached this February between Belgrade and Pristina. It was a major step forward, even if its first few weeks of implementation have been somewhat disappointing. I very much regret the difficulties encountered in the implementation of the agreement. I would like to recall that the agreement is to be implemented to the letter AND in the spirit of the principles of regional cooperation. For regional cooperation to be effective, it needs to be inclusive, representative and efficient. I continue to call on both sides to be pragmatic, not dogmatic.

I would also encourage the countries to profit from enhanced regional cooperation to solve border disputes.

Looking at the landscape of regional cooperation in Western Balkans, the question is not whether we have enough – the questions is whether we have the right cooperation, the cooperation translating the political will into practical solutions and moving the whole region closer to the European Union and at the same time creating a solid basis of cooperation and interaction once those countries join the European Union. The time has come not to tell these countries anymore what cooperation they need but that it is up to them to define the scope of such cooperation and look at the experience of the countries that have recently joined the EU and I very much welcome the intensive interaction between the Visegrad Four countries and countries of the Western Balkans.

I would like to conclude with a final thought. What is important is that the European Union and its instruments are up to the task. We need to ensure that through our post Lisbon instruments and the strengthened coherence of our policies, we can assist countries to make positive changes

Thank you