The Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group
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13 May, 2014

Regional Cooperation: A Prelude to Greater European Integration


1989 was a year of predictions. Fukuyama spoke of the “end of history,” while Samuel Huntington, in his controversial article in Foreign Affairs, posited that the world is dominated by religious and cultural conflicts or fault lines, which will determine future struggle. All these theories and predications illustrate the problem of the post-Cold War order, but offer no solutions.

In addition to the 28 countries of the European Union (EU), there are still many levels of the European integration process, such as the European Free Trade Association, in which countries like Norway, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Iceland are connected to the EU, as well as the European Economic Area (except Switzerland). There is also the Council of Europe, with its 47 members, which has done more in the field of culture and human rights than in safeguarding the quality of democracy in its member countries.  The same applies for the OSCE, which incorporates all the republics of the former Soviet Union, the United States and Canada. There is NATO, which includes Greece and Turkey as equal partners, and thus has prevented a serious conflict from erupting in the Aegean.

There are also a plethora of regional initiatives such as the Baltic Council, the Central European Initiative (CEI), the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC), the Stability Pact until June 2008, followed by the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) and the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative (SECI); which all focus on peace and stability as well as promoting technical cooperation in the different regions and sub-regions of Europe. The SECI, CEI, BSEC, Stability Pact and RCC have decided to coordinate their activities in the region, in attempt to complement each other and avoid overlap of effort, thus trying to bring more cosmos to the chaos.

In countries undergoing political and economic transformation, and particularly post-conflict SEE societies, international organizations play an important role in the development of new, albeit temporary, instruments to navigate through the chaos. The question is whether such temporary arrangements will develop into self-perpetuating organizations, which will cost the tax-payer money and produce few, if any, results.

The western democracies remain poorly prepared to answer challenges similar to those from the aftermath of the 1989, as we are learning from their answer to the ongoing Ukrainian crisis.

For the purposes of this survey, it is better to concentrate on those initiatives in Southeastern Europe, and in the immediate vicinity, which have the greatest impact on the European integration process as a whole.

The first organisation able to act throughout Southeastern Europe, and with a substantial footprint in the region, has been the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The special advantage of this organization is that it is relatively mobile, and serves as a platform for an all-encompassing European and trans-Atlantic discussion.  It is relevant that the Central Asian states are represented here, and other “European” groupings, and define themselves as European states and players in the European arena.  The OSCE is in a better position than the United Nations to finance and support special tasks.  The Europeans bear the greater part of the financial burden while the US has its hands tied, at times, with the lengthy, and very political, process of seeking Congressional approval. The OSCE remains a relevant, yet declining, actor in Southeastern Europe with substantial missions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo.

As neither the OSCE, nor the Council of Europe could tackle issues of trade, CEFTA (Central European Free Trade Association) emerged to secure free trade among countries not yet in the European Union. It was initially set up for the countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007, but has moved southeast since. CEFTA not only overtook the treaty, in a slightly altered form, but also the secretariat, which is now based in Brussels on the premises of the EFTA (European Free Trade Association).

The most important organisation dedicated to regional political cooperation is the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC). At the Zagreb Round Table of the Stability Pact for Southeast Europe, in spring of 2008, it was decided to hand control over to the Regional Cooperation Council, which was built in February 2008.

There is still one problem open, the full participation of the Kosovo government, which depends on the recognition of Kosovo by some partners within the RCC.  The Regional Cooperation Council is focusing on the same themes as the Stability Pact for Southeast Europe, which came before it. Different from the Stability Pact, the RCC is motivated by the fact that it should be responsible for the countries in the region in order to continue regional cooperation. That has worked until now, but bilateral problems, such as Greece/Macedonia, are extremely difficult to mediate, even for a multilateral body.

In addition to general forms of regional cooperation, organisations have emerged that tackle specific fields. A relatively new field of regional cooperation is energy. The blueprint is strikingly simple – trade energy, connect power grids and liberalise markets in Southeast Europe – and is saving billions in comparison to the efforts towards attaining, or maintaining, self-sufficiency on a national basis.  To this end, the European Commission and the Stability Pact jointly launched an initiative for electricity and gas labelled the South East Europe Regional Energy Market, which aims to reshuffle the markets in line with the relevant EU legislation (acquis communautaire).  Donors have made it very clear that SEE countries can only expect funding if they reform and liberalise their energy sectors.

The result is the Energy Community Treaty, with the secretariat based in Vienna, focusing on regional cooperation of electricity and gas pipelines. All proposals for gas pipelines (NABUCCO, Blue-Stream, South-Stream) are closely followed by the secretariat. Also, a lot of effort has been put towards energy conservation.

Another emerging field, for regional cooperation, is the fight against organised crime.

This curse, and its twin brother corruption, are damaging SEE’s reputation, are discouraging investments and make these societies pay a particularly heavy price for forlorn opportunities.  But organised crime does not originate in the Balkans alone.  The region is also a transit corridor for the trafficking of “commodities” like human beings and drugs.  Therefore, a regional approach is most efficient, and needs to be connected with global actors such as Interpol or Europol.  A Trans-border Crime Fighting Centre in Bucharest is operational, where 12 participating nations are represented, by one customs and police officer each, in order to help with investigations of their colleagues from other countries.

Filling in the Gaps

Given the array of existing initiatives aimed at confidence-building and ensuring security and stability in the region, one might naturally question the necessity of establishing more. As already mentioned, many of the existing initiatives seek political solutions to the region’s problems by concentrating on national, historical, and cultural idiosyncrasies. Others focus on addressing common economic and environmental concerns.

The ultimate intent of these regional initiatives is to create, and implement, viable mechanism, which would preclude military or political solutions to regional contrarieties. The most effective means, to this end, is to motivate decision makers in various regions to work together in order to significantly improve the economic, social and ecological conditions of the region in which they live.

Recommendations for a Future Strategy

One can conclude that there is certainly no deficit of initiatives and organizations who operate on a European, regional and sub-regional basis.  The activities and participants in these initiatives sometimes overlap and are duplicated.  The lessons for any regional initiative are quite clear.  I would like to conclude by offering the following recommendations:

  1. the expertise of existing institutions and organizations should be maximized (UN/ECE, OSCE, NATO, CIS countries, BSEC, Stability Pact, RCC and so on);
  2. special thematic project groups should be established based on the experience of the existing institutions, and these project groups should focus on cross-border cooperation;
  3. expertise and feasibility studies can be conducted by external experts and specialists, but the process of implementation must be initiated by the countries in the regions;
  4. the process of on-going project evaluation is necessary, and can be conducted by independent institutions from the US and Europe;
  5. participants in project groups should not be politicians or government officials, but rather experts and specialists who are able to deal with the issues at hand in a professional manner;
  6. NGOs and the third sector are of great importance. NGOs operating on a global level, such as Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and other world watch groups, should act as regional advisors and help establish and develop local grass-roots movements in the region; also initiatives focusing on social issues have a growing importance.
  7. projects should focus on producing results and should be designed in a way that they can be implemented.Too many seminars, symposia and workshops will not, in the long run, change the lives of individuals living in the region.
  8. lastly, any regional initiative should include all institutions and organizations dealing with the area to take part in the responsibility for the future economic, political and social development of the region. It will be a chance to overcome the current economic crisis by investment in critical regions- and to stabilise them.

Of overall importance is the quality of the crisis managers involved in the initiatives. Sometimes the proper education and training is missing, especially in politically influenced initiatives, which change the responsible personalities too often. It is extremely important to have the proper quality and the proper knowledge of the region. Special training is possible, but is very seldom done. The numbers of initiatives is not to be criticized. The criticism is that there is no review-process about effectiveness and cost relation.

Erhard Busek

Dr. Erhard Busek is Coordinator of the South-Eastern Cooperative Initiative, Chairman of the Institute for Danube Region and Central Europe, and President of the European Forum Alpbach among other positions he holds. Busek served as Vice-Chancellor of Austria, Minister for Science and Research, Minister of Education, and Special Representative of the Austrian Government on EU-Enlargement. From January 2002 until June 2008 he was a Special Co-ordinator of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe. He received his law degree from the University of Vienna.
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