News 27 Aug 15

Balkan Summit Urged to Tackle Bilateral Disputes

Western Balkan countries must step up their efforts to resolve bilateral disputes with EU help, civil society groups on Thursday told the Western Balkans Summit in Vienna.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic
Ministers at last year's conference |  Photo by AP.

Civil society groups at the Vienna Balkan summit have given several concrete recommendations for governments on how to resolve bilateral disputes and speed up EU integration.

The set of recommendations was presented to the summit by the European Fund for the Balkans, EFB, and the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group, BiEPAG.

Their policy brief, called “Removing obstacles to EU accession:  Bilateral disputes in the Western Balkans”, recommends that countries from the region make the resolution of bilateral disputes a priority by signing a declaration not to use such issues to block other countries’ accession negotiations and by subjecting their relations to annual reviews.

The policy paper envisages a new mediation procedure for when bilateral talks do not bear fruit and installing a framework among the countries to learn from the region's best practices.

It also urges the EU to step up its own involvement in the resolution of outstanding disputes in the region by appointing a special EU coordinator for bilateral disputes.

This, the policy paper says, would "demonstrate the EU’s commitment to addressing these issues" and ensure "a coherent engagement in ongoing resolution processes."

One piece of advice for the EU is to tackle potentially problematic disputes early on in the EU accession process before they turn into major obstacles by using conditionality and the joint membership perspective as a driving force towards a compromise.

When disputes involve an EU member state, as in the Greece-Macedonia "name" dispute, or between Croatia and Serbia over the treatment of minorities, the civil society groups advise addressing the issues through the European Council Presidency or through referral to international arbitration.

"Bilateral issues between member states and EU hopefuls must not disrupt the accession process and thus undermine the credibility and integrity of the EU’s enlargement policy," the policy brief maintains.

Instead of relying only on the EU perspective as a tool to resolve open issues, experience in the region shows that "bilateral disputes have often erupted precisely once one country entered the EU and used its new asymmetric power to exert pressure on the dispute party remaining a (potential) candidate for accession," the paper notes.

Another recommendation concerns greater involvement of other international actors, like the OSCE, the Council of Europe and civil society, so that the dispute-resolving efforts may be more coherent and implementation of agreements is improved.

The Western Balkans Summit is part of the Berlin Process, a five-year process marked by yearly summits in order to underline the EU's commitment to enlargement.

Apart from EU members Germany and Austria, the six participants at the summit are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia who are not yet EU members and wish to join.

The summit builds on the progress made since the Berlin Summit last August, and will seek to further develop the co-operation between the six countries on a range of issues.

The EU is being represented by the EU Foreign and Security Policy chief, Federica Mogherini, the Enlargement Commissioner, Johannes Hahn and the Vice-President for Energy Union, Marosh Shefcovic. The event is hosted by the Austrian Chancellor, Werner Faymann.

The Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group, BiEPAG, is a group of analysts, scholars and researchers established as a joint initiative of the European Fund for the Balkans and the Centre for Southeast European Studies of the University of Graz.

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