Six Western Balkans leaders adopted on August 26 a 115-point action plan to deepen their economic cooperation as part of the EU integration process.
The plan includes forming a joint economic area that will provide opportunities for businesses and citizens and will boost economic growth and employment. The plans are based on agreements reached between leaders of the Western Balkans countries at the Trieste summit earlier this year.
The action plan was adopted at an informal meeting of the prime ministers of Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, which was held in the Albanian coastal city of Durres. EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn and World Bank vice president Cyril Muller also attended the meeting, which was held under a heavy police and army presence.
“The action plan is aimed to make the region more attractive for investments and is focused on transformation of movements of goods, services, capital and skilled workers,” a statement from the Albanian government — which hosted the summit — cited Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama as saying at the joint news conference with Hahn.
This will be achieved through cheaper trade movement, a radical transformation of border procedures, as well as the establishment of mechanisms to reduce logistics costs.
“We are very encouraged that there is a full agreement on this on the political level,” Rama said.
Hahn noted that the plan is a good sign for all countries in the region and that the establishment of a common economic area in the Western Balkans is necessary.
“We are ready to support and cooperate with you to make further progress towards the EU integration,” Hahn said.
“Our interest is to include all these countries, including Albania, as soon as possible in the EU and that is why certain measures are needed, but at the end everything will be in the interest of all citizens,” he added.
The meeting was focused on commitments given at the Trieste summit held in July. In Trieste the Western Balkans countries approved a multi-annual action plan (MAP) which included formation of a regional economic area and also signed a treaty to integrate their transport networks.
The regional economic area is expected to create a welcoming business environment, stimulate entrepreneurship, build a knowledge-based society, provide good quality jobs, and ensure competitive markets.
The next steps of the process include mutual recognition of professional qualifications, identifying and scrapping red tape and regulatory barriers that impede the trade and investments, setting up regional dialogue on digital transformation and starting negotiations on a dispute settlement mechanism.
The agreement reached in Trieste fell short of planning a customs union previously supported by some leaders from the region. However, there are still hopes it will revive trade among the Western Balkans countries. At the Trieste summit, Hahn pointed out that while trade between the Western Balkans and the EU more than doubled in the last decade to reach €44bn in 2016, trade within the region has stagnated.
All six Western Balkans countries are at different stages of EU integration. So far only Serbia and Montenegro have launched EU accession negotiations.
Brnabic-Zaev meeting on the sidelines
On the sidelines of the meeting in Durres, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev met his Serbian peer Ana Brnabic following the diplomatic scandal that temporarily shattered the relations between the two neighbouring countries.
On August 20, Belgrade recalled its embassy staff from Skopje in protest at what it said were “offensive actions” against Serbian institutions in a move allegedly taken after intelligence information that Macedonia planned to vote for Kosovo to gain full membership in the UN cultural agency Unesco. In November 2015, Kosovo narrowly failed to become a full member of Unesco due to the lack of support
However, on August 23, following a long phone conversation between Zaev and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Macedonia and Serbia agreed to mend their strained relations.
Zaev reaffirmed in Durres that the crisis is overcome and now the focus will be on deepening cooperation. He also underlined that Kosovo has not applied for Unesco membership so the issue will not be discussed this year.
Brnabic invited the Macedonian prime minister to visit Belgrade in November to discuss economic cooperation.
Good neighbourly relations are one of the key demands for the six Western Balkan states, including Serbia, Macedonia and Kosovo, to make progress towards full EU membership.