Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama hosted an informal meeting of Western Balkan leaders in Durres on August 27 with the main topic being regional economic integration.
Amongst the topics discussed were developing a joint vision for aligning with the EU regulations and the implementation of a regional economic zone. The concept, initially broached by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, is gaining increasing traction in the region, and has been encouraged by EU officials as a way to boost regional cooperation as countries from the Western Balkans aim for EU accession.
The meeting was attended by EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn. Hahn said in a tweet that “leaders’ meeting in Durres adds to the positive dynamics we have witnessed over the recent months with regard to the #EUperspective of the #WesternBalkans.”
He expanded on this theme at the press conference following the meeting, saying that over 80,000 new jobs have been created throughout the region over the last year, while for the first time in many years trade within the region has increased, growing by 18% compared to 2016.
“[A] good part of these countries new jobs have been created as a result of the growth of the domestic economies of the countries and opportunities created within the countries, but also the doubling of trade between the various countries of the region with the EU,” the commissioner said.
“[This] demonstrates and demonstrates the potential still present in the region and expects to be used so that we can improve the economic conditions of trade between the countries of the region and beyond, while we can remove formal barriers and informal trade.”
The six Western Balkans states — Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia — are at different stages in the process of joining the EU, with Serbia and Montenegro being the most advanced as they already launched EU accession talks. Albania and Macedonia hope to open negotiations next year, while neither Bosnia nor Kosovo have candidate status.
The meeting was held without the participation of three prime ministers. Prime Minister of Macedonia Zoran Zaev did not attend the meeting as bad weather conditions prevented him from leaving Skopje airport. The heads of the Serbian and Bosnian governments, Ana Brnabic and Denis Zvizdic, were also absent.
Creating a regional economic zone is seen as a way of boosting the economies of the six countries in the region, which remain among the poorest in Europe. Most saw their economies devastated by years of war in the 1990s as Yugoslavia fractured, putting them well behind the other post-Socialist countries from Central Europe on the transition path. Creating a single economic zone should help trade within the region as well as encouraging investments from other countries, but there are political and administrative barriers to overcome.
"We have had a period of sustained economic growth in the region and we have had a period of employment growth. But despite the fact that we have employment growth, people need more salaries and higher incomes," Rama said at the press conference after the meeting, as quoted by Xinhua. He also indicated that recent improvements in political cooperation in the region had not been matched by deeper economic cooperation.
Kosovan Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj said at the joint news conference that his government is committed to advance all processes related to the economic integration of the Western Balkan countries, the government in Pristina said in a statement.
Haradinaj added that Kosovo is working to improve ties and communication with neighbouring countries and projects supported by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the European Investment Bank (EIB). The Kosovan prime minister also underlined the commitment of the Kosovo’s government to reduce roaming tariffs with the countries in the region.
At the news conference, Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic particularly stressed the need to prevent the "brain drain” by creating conditions for young people to stay in their own countries.
"We must do everything to keep young people in the region and to create conditions for those who have left to return, which means we need to invest more in research and development,” Markovic said, according to a government statement.