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European Law Monitor newsZagreb Summit; highlighting achievements  and concrete measures to make the EU perspective tangible for the citizens of the Western Balkans

"The European Council reiterated its determination to fully and effectively support the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries, which will become an integral part of the EU, once they meet the established criteria."- this is how EU leaders defined the Union´s policy towards the Western Balkans at their Summit meeting in Thessaloniki in 2003. Their political commitment has been translated into concrete action in the ´Thessaloniki Agenda´, spelling out the political process for bringing these countries closer to the EU. In 2006 the Commission proposed practical measures to make the European perspective more tangible for the people of the Western Balkans. Further strengthening regional cooperation, including the establishment of a free trade area building on CEFTA,   helping  people to people contacts through visa facilitation and scholarships, as well as continuing financial assistance are the main elements. Besides the important decisions taken to enhance local ownership in regional cooperation, the Zagreb Summit will also provide a platform for stock taking of the achievements so far in regional cooperation and in EU-Western Balkans relations.

Regional cooperation in South East Europe: Moving towards local ownership

The Stability Pact is transferring its responsibilities to locally managed bodies based in the region. The Zagreb Summit of the South-East Europe Cooperation Process (SEECP) and the Stability Pact Regional Table on 10-11 May will mark an important step in this process. The European Commission fully supports this transfer of ownership to the local level and cooperates closely with the Stability Pact, the SEECP and other stakeholders to that end.

In recent years we have witnessed substantial progress in regional co-operation in South East Europe, as well as in the countries´ closer relationship with the EU. As a result, a review of the structures and methods of regional cooperation became necessary. The countries of the region can increasingly assume responsibility for regional cooperation, which should lie first and foremost in their hands.

In May 2006 the Regional Table of the Stability Pact in Belgrade adopted a Roadmap for a regionally-owned Cooperation Framework in South East Europe. The Roadmap foresees the establishment of a Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) to take over the responsibilities of the Stability Pact by early 2008. The Regional Cooperation Council will coordinate regional cooperation processes and ensure their sustainability and focus. A Secretariat will be established, based in the region and a Secretary-General from the region will be appointed. The Regional Cooperation Council and its Secretariat will provide the SEECP with operational capabilities as well as a framework for the continued involvement of the international donor community in the region.

Regional cooperation activities, including the various initiatives of the Stability Pact, will be streamlined according to agreed priorities. Priority areas for co-operation in the framework of the RCC are as follows:

  • Economic and Social Development.
  • Infrastructure
  • Justice and Home Affairs
  • Security Co-operation
  • Building Human Capital
  • Parliamentary Co-operation

Social cohesion and gender mainstreaming will also be given due attention. Particular emphasis is placed on the role of civil society actors in regional cooperation. These activities will build on recent achievements such as the creation of a regional free trade arrangement (CEFTA), the establishment of an Energy Community for South-East Europe, the signing of a European Common Aviation Area agreement, as well as on other ongoing regional cooperation activities and projects in the fields of energy, transport, environmental protection, justice, freedom and security and disaster prevention.

The new CEFTA

In December 2006, a new Central European Free Trade Agreement[2] (CEFTA) was signed by Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia and UNMIK/Kosovo[3].

The new Agreement enlarged CEFTA to include additional countries and territories of South East Europe and created:

A regional free trade area, based on the existing network of bilateral agreements. More than 90% of trade and almost all trade in industrial goods are liberalised;

A simplified single system of rules that will make it easier to trade within the region

The Agreement was also modernised to include new trade provisions in areas such as harmonisation of rules, technical standards, services, competition, government procurement and the protection of intellectual property rights.

Regional trade integration is of crucial importance to the Western Balkans, and a key element of EU policy for the region. Through increased economic ties, the countries of the region will be able to create a stronger basis for economic development, and will thus be better prepared to sustain the impact of the EU internal market when they eventually join the Union. An adequately integrated regional market will also increase the attractiveness of the various countries for much needed foreign investment.

Visa facilitation for the Western Balkans

The Commission recently concluded negotiations on visa facilitation and readmission agreements with the Western Balkan countries. Visa facilitation will make travelling to the EU easier for citizens of Western Balkan countries, thus rendering the European perspective more tangible. It is a first step towards the establishment of a visa-free regime.

The visa facilitation agreements will make travelling to the EU for short-term trips easier for citizens of Western Balkan countries. These agreements bring substantial benefits to travellers to the EU from these countries. All travellers to the EU will benefit from lower visa fee rates. The fee will remain at 35 € and the recent general raise of the fee to 60 € will not apply to citizens of the Western Balkan countries. Certain groups such as students and pensioners will be totally exempted from visa fees. The processing of visa applications will be accelerated. For certain categories of persons, e.g. businessmen, students and journalists, the requirements on documents supporting a visa application will be simplified. Certain categories of frequent travellers will be granted multi-entry visas with long periods of validity. Finally, holders of diplomatic passports will be exempted from the visa obligation.

The agreements on readmission set out clear obligations and procedures for the authorities of both the Western Balkan countries and EU Member States as to when and how to take back people who are illegally residing on their territories. The agreements cover not only the illegally staying nationals of both parties but also third country nationals and stateless persons provided they have transited through the country which is asked to accept the readmission, or have a visa or resident permit from that country.

The visa facilitation and readmission agreements should enter into force before the end of this year[5]. The conclusion of visa facilitation agreements is to be seen as an important step along the path set out by the Thessaloniki agenda towards a visa free travel regime. In order to move forward in this area, the Western Balkan countries will have to implement relevant reforms and reinforce their cooperation with the EU and at regional level in areas such as strengthening the rule of law, fighting organised crime and corruption, and increasing their administrative capacity in border control and security of documents by introducing biometric data.

More scholarships to students from the Western Balkans

More scholarships will become available to students of the Western Balkans for studies in the European Union as of the current year. The Commission has been reviewing its actions under Tempus and Erasmus Mundus in order to expand opportunities for mobility undergraduate and graduate students as well as teachers as from 2007.

Cooperation with Western Balkan countries in the area of Education has been significant in recent years, with a substantial Commission Contribution under two programmes: Tempus and Erasmus Mundus.

In 2006, a new scheme "Erasmus Mundus • Western Balkan Window" was initiated under the CARDS programme to allow up to 100 students from the region to undertake postgraduate studies in EU high profile master's courses. This arrangement will be renewed under the new Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance and will be extended to Croatia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which, as candidate countries, are not eligible under the general Erasmus Mundus Programme.

The third phase of the Tempus programme expired at the end of 2005.The Commission plans to continue Tempus with its strong focus on institutional co-operation beyond 2006. Moreover, the revision of the Programme (Tempus IV) has allowed the incorporation of a new dimension into the Programme: students' mobility activities. This new component will be available as from 2008.

A new "Erasmus Mundus - External Cooperation Window" will be initiated in 2007 to enable additional scholarships to graduate and undergraduate students. This new Window will enable the exchange of 500 undergraduate students annually between the EU Member States and the Western Balkan region as well as between the countries of the Western Balkan region themselves.

These 3 components of the Higher Education Programme in the Western Balkan countries have been included in the 2007 Financing Proposal for Education and Youth Programmes, which will be approved by the European Commission later this year.

Financial assistance to the Western Balkans

EU financial assistance to the Western Balkans was substantial during the period 2000-2006, totalling € 5.4 billion. This amount includes considerable reconstruction aid after the Kosovo war.

Since the 1 January 2007 financial Assistance for the countries of the Western Balkans is provided through the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA).[6] The Commission remains committed to supporting the region with adequate funds to back EU policy priorities. A key role of IPA will be to act as a catalyst for attracting further domestic and foreign investment.