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European Law Monitor newsWestern Balkans: enhancing the European perspective

The Commission has adopted new initiatives, and enhanced existing ones to support the political and economic development in the countries of the Western Balkans[1], thus helping to accelerate their progress on the road towards EU membership. The proposals will be presented to the EU member states at the informal meeting of EU foreign ministers in Slovenia on 28-29 March.

Over the past two years, the countries of the Western Balkans have moved closer to the EU. This reflects progress, albeit uneven, in reforms and in meeting the conditions. However, they are facing a number of challenges in 2008 which have far-reaching implications for their security, stability and well-being.

It is in the interest of the EU and of Europe, as a whole, that the region should go ahead with political and economic reform, reconciliation among peoples and progress towards the EU. Throughout their transformation the Commission is giving particular priority to strengthening the rule of law, good governance, judicial and administrative reform, people to people contacts and the development of civil society.

The EU is mobilising all available policy instruments to support the region's progress. Today, the Commission sets out new initiatives, and enhances existing ones. In the Communication we also send short political messages to each of the countries, pointing to areas that are of importance for their further steps on the road towards eventual EU membership.

"Today's measures prove the EU's strong commitment to the European perspective of the Western Balkans. Within the EU, there is an unwavering will to support the people of the Western Balkans in opting for European values and living standards. However, it is the leaders and people of the region who will determine whether their countries, through reforms, will move decisively towards a European future, marked by increased stability and prosperity." • said Olli Rehn, Commissioner for Enlargement.

It is time to move towards visa-free travel to the EU for citizens of the Western Balkans. The Commission is starting a dialogue with all western Balkan countries concerned to establish the conditions to be met for lifting the visa requirement.

The Commission will further increase the number of scholarships granted to students from the Western Balkans to study in the EU. EU support to civil society development and dialogue will increase substantially. More EU programmes and agencies are also being opened to the countries of the Western Balkans, enabling contacts and cooperation between scientific and educational institutions. The Commission will continue its support to a more intensive cooperation in the areas of science and research, education, culture, youth, employment policy and social issues, environment protection and in the field of justice, freedom and security.

Enhanced regional cooperation is essential for the political, economic and social development of the western Balkans. The Commission will continue to support the Regional Cooperation Council and other cooperation frameworks such as the new Central European Free Trade Agreement, the Energy Community Treaty and the Agreement on a European Common Aviation Area. It also proposes the negotiation of a Western Balkan Transport Community Treaty.

The vast forest fires in the summer 2007 highlighted the importance of preparedness and well-coordinated cross-border action in case of disasters in the region. The Commission will launch an initiative in the area of disaster prevention, preparedness and response and will support related regional cooperation.

Continued EU financial assistance is supporting the reform process and the overall development of the Western Balkans, through the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA). The average annual allocation for the western Balkans under IPA for the period 2007-2011 is approximately €800 million. This is by far the highest per capita amount provided by the Commission to any region in the world. Increased coordination between the Commission, International Financial Institutions and bilateral donors is crucial for maximizing the economic and social development impact of grants and loans to the Western Balkans.

For more information on the Western Balkans

[1] Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo under UN Security Council Resolution 1244