There has long been a fear that Greece will become the victim of a bottleneck through the Balkans. This often discussed fear has finally become a reality. On March 8, three Balkan nations joined with a growing number of countries imposing increasingly restrictive immigration policies. Slovenia, Serbia and Croatia announced they would only allow people to cross their borders if they already possessed valid visas. This would effectively stop the thousands of migrants in Greece from moving north in an attempt to reach asylum in Germany. Also on March 9, Macedonia announced it would no longer allow migrants to freely enter the country. One report estimated that 13,000-15,000 migrants were currently living in makeshift camps near Greece’s border with Macedonia. Though exact estimates differ, numerous media organizations reported on March 9 that over 35,000 migrants from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan are currently inside Greece. The number is expected to rise as more migrants land on mainland Greece and islands near the border with Turkey.
This last development puts even greater pressure on Greece. However, it also poses new challenges for other countries in the region. Hungary had seen a drop in migrants attempting to enter the country after it built a border fence and increased penalties for entering illegally. According to the Washington Post, over 2500 people were arrested for attempting to enter Hungary in February (far higher than previous months). Bulgaria and Albania have both increased monitoring are their borders with Greece. The Italian Government is particularly concerned migrants about migrants reaching the Albanian cost and then crossing the Adriatic Sea to Italy. As a result, the two countries announced they would conduct joint military patrols in the Adriatic Sea.
The European Union’s latest attempt to handle the crisis has come under considerable public criticism and legal scrutiny. On March 8, EU and Turkish leaders announced a new plan to return discourage further migrants from attempting the dangerous trip to Greece. The plan indicated that all undocumented migrants arriving in Greece would returned to Turkey. In exchange, the Turkish Government had requested that the EU resettle one Syrian migrant for each returned to Turkey (the so-called ‘one for one’ policy). As part of the plan, the EU also pledged to more quickly implement visa-free travel for Turks and faster approval of a €3 billion Euro aid package. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has criticised the agreement as a violation of the EU’s international obligations and the European Convention on Human Rights. Even if the plan is not stopped by a legal challenge, it is unclear when it would be fully implemented.
The ministers from six Balkan states recently met in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, for a regional ministerial conference. The meeting of the “Western Balkans 6” begun with a summit in Kosovo that brought together the Foreign and Infrastructure ministers of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and for the first time, Serbia. The regional decision makers met alongside senior representatives from the international community, including Johannes Han, Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement, and the European Commissioner for Transport, Violeta Bulc, who addressed the conference by video call.
The joint meeting of the Balkan ministers and European Union officials was organized in the same format as all European Union meetings and was chaired by Kosovo’s Deputy PM, Hashim Thaçi. The meeting in Kosovo had been preceded by a series of conferences held in Belgrade, Berlin, and Budva, as well as by a number of informal ministerial meetings. The meetings that created a pathway to this most recent Conference were used to emphasize the need to define common infrastructural and energy projects. At these precursor meetings the Western Balkan countries committed to annually prepare and submit national programs of economic reform to the European Commission.
During the conference in Pristina, discussions for the establishment of a Central Region Transport Network took place. If implemented, this network would ensure a better connection between all the Western Balkans and the European Union, with developments in connections between major cities, economic centers, and the most important seaports. Not only this, but it would also guarantee progression towards a more transparent decision-making process and coordinated approach to economics and infrastructure for the six participating countries. In so far as to say, the meeting emphasized the importance of regional infrastructural connectivity for the implementation of major regional projects in transport and energy.
The plans for such developments are to be presented to the European Commission and European Union countries at a Western Balkans conference, scheduled for late summer in Vienna. If successful, the plans made at this most recent Balkan ministerial meeting will be followed up in Vienna to enable significant connectivity improvements in the region, which will boost overall competitiveness, raise job growth, enable further job creation, and make a real improvement to the lives of Balkan inhabitants.
Whilst the joint meeting itself represented a significant step towards creating a Western Balkans transport network, the meeting also reflected the combination of modest steps and giant leaps the Balkans have taken in cooperation and tolerance since the Balkan conflicts of the 1990’s. Notably, the developments have taken place in the midst of the continued ethnic division and political instability that has become the reoccurring theme since the breakup of Yugoslavia. The modest steps manifest in the sheer participation in the joint meeting, held in Kosovo, as this is the first time Serbia has attended, which serves to illustrate the inclusive nature of the meeting’s cooperation.
On the other hand, the giant leaps in development in cooperation and tolerance between Western Balkan states are characterized by their will to reignite past connections, albeit in a very different way to their former Yugoslav ties, to intensify economic cooperation between them. The intensification of economic cooperation will require EU-compatible reforms in order to ensure the best regulatory environment to implement and operate the planned projects. Moreover, it also means the Balkan states must establish core investment priorities, credible planning, and funding mechanisms, as well as ensuring that their individual countries have the fiscal space to take up the necessary loan-financing to get all the projects implemented on time. From this meeting, it is clear that the path of development for the Balkans is inherently tied to their cooperation, connectivity, and importantly, their economic governance.