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.