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PUBLIC PANEL DISCUSSION: Western Balkans: Energizing the Enlargement Process by Solving Bilateral Disputes (April 26, 2016, Vienna)

27.04.2016

PUBLIC PANEL DISCUSSION: Western Balkans: Energizing the Enlargement Process by Solving Bilateral Disputes (April 26, 2016, Vienna)

In view of the upcoming Western Balkans Summit in Paris scheduled for July 2016, forty high level representatives of the six Western Balkans governments and of other countries of the Berlin Process met in Vienna on April 25-25, 2016, at the follow-up high-level conference of the Vienna Western Balkans Summit – “Western Balkans: Energizing the Enlargement Process by Solving Bilateral Disputes”.

The Vienna conference was an opportunity to present the BiEPAG toolbox and the proposed template for the country reports on progress made, which were both perceived as important for solving the bilateral issues and finding solutions which will support the EU accession process of the WB region. The conference was focused on the productive discussion on the BiEPAG elaborated and proposed template for the country reports on progress made in addressing bilateral issues and the tool box on advancing bilateral relations in the spheres of borders and minority issues, based on best practices and international norms and mechanisms. After the Vienna WB Summit, The EFB’s Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group has been developing the appropriate tools and mechanisms which will support the process and the reporting of the progress made at this year’s WB6 Summit in Paris on July 4th, 2016.

The finale of the whole conference was the public panel discussion that was a reflection to the results of the expert meetings and the governments’ political commitments to good neighbourly relations and on the effects on their EU accession process. It was hosted by Mr. Sebastian Kurz (Federal Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs), and the panel included Ms.Hedvig Morvai (European Fund for the Balkans, Executive Director), Ditmir Bushati, (Minister of Foreign Affairs of Albania), Josip Brkic (Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina), Goran Svilanovic (Secretary General, Regional Cooperation Council), and Thomas Mayr-Harting (Managing Director for Europe and Central Asia, EEAS) as panellists. The Impulse statement was given by Florian Bieber (Professor, Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz and BiEPAG Coordinator), and the wrap-up and outlook was by Stefan Lehne, Visiting Scholar, Carnegie Europe.

All the participants presented their innate support for the process of resolving the bilateral disputes. According to the Minister Kurz, the resolving bilateral conflicts prerequisite for EU accession and Austria will definitely continue to be focused on the EU Integration of the WB region.

-To support the Western Balkan countries on their way to the EU, is in Austria’s own best interests. We must not allow that pending bilateral disputes slow down this process and destabilise the region, said Mr.Kurz, Federal Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs.

The general notion of all the participants was that all stakeholders must build on the successes of the last year signing of the Declaration on solving the bilateral disputes. Mr.Bieber accented the fact that one of the key successes of the Vienna Western Balkans Summit was the signing of the Declaration on Solving Bilateral Disputes, which was drafted according to the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) policy brief “Removing obstacles to EU accession: Bilateral disputes in the Western Balkans”, prepared in cooperation with the Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs. By adopting this document, the WB6 states than pledged to the three pillar obligation – not to block, or otherwise impede their neighbours’ progress towards the European Union, to resolve bilateral disputes and most importantly at this stage – to report on the progress made at the Paris Summit.

-With the shared commitment of the six Western Balkan countries as well as the two border agreements which were signed on the margins of Vienna’s Western Balkans Summit, we proved last August that a concrete progress in this area is possible. A stable environment is essential for all the other common challenges – such as the migration crisis, said Mr.Ditmir Bushati, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Albania.

All the participants also stressed the role of regional cooperation on the EU route and the role that the RCC has and will continue to have in the process. RCC Secretary General, Goran Svilanovic also provided his input from his previous experience as Serbia’s Foreign Minister and gave different examples on the ways and means, but also obstacles to resolving bilateral issues, explained that the road ahead is far from easy, but that the work so far on finding ways to resolve Bilateral disputes is promising and encouraging.

EFB’s Executive Director, Hedvig Morvai, shared her notion about the role that the civil society can play in the accession process, including the search for solutions for bilateral issues.

-The civil society dimension is involved in the process from the beginning, since EFB’s Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group experts were approached by the Austrian MFA to participate in the Vienna WB Summit to jointly draft the Declaration on Solving the Bilateral Disputes. So, this a good example that the civil society can always contribute with its expertise, input and different perspectives. This follow-up is a testimony that we, as a civil society can be constructively involved in the whole process. Civil society could provide community leadership, shape public opinion and contribute to the reconciliation. It can build bridges, nurture dialogue and assist governments to overcome difficulties. The role of the civil society in this process of solving bilateral disputes can serve as a successful case study of how the civil society dimension in the Berlin Process can contribute to such a sensitive and complicated issue. It is a best practice and from each side it is recognised as a beneficial cooperation that shows positive and concrete results in the follow-up activities. So, we believe in the continuation of this cooperation not only in the run-up to Paris, but beyond, said Morvai.

The panel discussion was an event on the agenda of the conference “Western Balkans: Energizing the Enlargement Process by Solving Bilateral Disputes”, which was organised by the Austrian Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs in close cooperation with the European Fund for the Balkans, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development, the Karl Renner Institute and the Regional Cooperation Council. It was envisioned as a follow-up of the process of solving bilateral issues that was initiated by the European Fund for the Balkans and the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group in the frames of the Vienna Western Balkans Summit in August 2015 and a preparation for the Paris Summit in July.