Newsletter 8/2010 - Our South East Europe

INTERVIEW with Dr. Visnja Samardzija, Head of Department for European Integration, Institute for International Relations, Croatia

Ownership in regional cooperation will further increase in 2011

Dr. Samardzija, how do you see regional cooperation developing in the next year, also in the context of further EU enlargement?

The year 2011 will be important for the region due to the fact that Croatia expects to conclude the accession negotiations with the EU and sign the Accession Treaty. It will have positive impacts for the region having in mind that it will be the first new EU member state confirming credibility of the Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP). Regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations form essential part of Croatia’s accession process and it will remain to be the country’s priority after reaching membership. On the other hand, the post-conflict reconciliation among the countries in the region has generally advanced and the ownership in regional cooperation will further increase in the coming year.

Regional cooperation in 2011 should be a continuation of already started initiatives. For example, some important steps for continuing the rapprochement and reconciliation policy were taken on high political level between Croatia and Serbia in 2010. Recent visits of Serbian President Boris Tadic to Croatia and active involvement of  Croatian President Ivo Josipovic are considered to be steps forward towards successfully solving conflicts from the past between the countries, shedding light on the fate of missing persons from 1991-1995 as well as strengthening dialogue on some open issues (such as succession). These efforts also aim to strengthen economic cooperation among the two countries but also within South East Europe as such. They opened the door for more relaxed economic relationship, stronger openness of regional economies for investment, removing barriers and pooling resources for industrial production (such as in shipbuilding, car and tram industry).

There are growing cooperative initiatives both on bilateral and regional level in justice and home affairs. The idea leading to establishing a regional arrest warrant would be an important step forward and platform for combating organized crime.

Finally, the upcoming Danube Region Strategy will open a new, very concrete platform for cooperation for the countries of the region sharing the Danube basin with their EU neighbours, and an opportunity to cooperate in transport, energy, environment and other sectors. Investment and trade are of crucial importance for the region and therefore further Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) trade liberalisation in agricultural products and services across the region and the opening of public procurement markets will be extremely important.

What could be the biggest obstacles to success of regional cooperation, in the aftermath of recent political developments?

In the first place, a dangerous obstacle to the success of regional cooperation is slow speed of the EU enlargement process. It goes without saying that the prospect of EU membership is a strong cohesive force among South East European multiethnic societies and post-conflict region. However, there is a fear in the region that a slowdown in enlargement process might continue (with the exception of Croatia), which reflects on the attitude of citizens toward EU accession.

The results of the last Gallup Balkan Monitor 2010 show that “the EU has lost its magic but has not lost its importance”. The support for the EU is decreasing across the region (highest in Kosovo, lowest in Croatia) but all the countries rank the importance of settling disputes with neighbours rather high.

The EU should not allow further reduction of integration enthusiasm of SAP countries and should find ways to ensure that enlargement commitment towards the region remains credible. Consistent process is needed that enables progress for each particular country based on the Copenhagen criteria and their own merits. Therefore, the enlargement process requires coherent public messages both by national governments and EU institutions. These messages must clearly present to the citizens what they could expect from EU accession but at the same time explain what does the EU expect from the countries of the region.

Unresolved bilateral disputes could be another obstacle for the success of regional cooperation. A positive example of solving the bilateral dispute is one between the neighbouring countries Slovenia and Croatia. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Greece should search for the mutually acceptable solution for the name issue, which is a precondition for opening the negotiations with the EU.

Visa-free regime for all the countries of the region (including Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina) will be an encouraging step for the citizens and would enable better mobility that would strengthen regional cooperation.

How could the challenges be overcome?

The EU should send practical messages that the enlargement process is not slowing down. On the other hand, the countries of the region should start behaving as if they were already members of the EU and demonstrate commitment to EU values by implementing their national reforms as well as through regional cooperation. The areas particularly important for strengthening cooperation are fight against organised crime and corruption as well as development of transport infrastructure.

What is your forecast for South East Europe for the next 2-3 years (political and economic)?

Although the economic crisis did not hit all the countries of the region with the same intensity, the recession is still present in all of them. With a slight optimism it could be said that there are modest signs of recovery in the region but the countries still face problems of widening fiscal deficits, high levels of unemployment and low competitiveness. General impression is that the reform momentum has slowed down and the countries of the region should strive to do more regarding their reform processes.

The key words seem to be structural reforms. Achieving sustainable growth rates will require strengthening structural economic reforms and prudent fiscal policies in a medium term period. However, a stronger inflow of foreign investment, particularly the Greenfield ones, will be needed. This requires more business-friendly environment. Top priority for most of the countries is fight against corruption. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) Transition Report points out that the region will need to seek for alternative sources of growth in 2011. This is particularly important for Croatia which will soon have to cope with the competitive pressure of the EU but also for the other countries from the region that have recorded slow recovery.

Visnja Samardzija joined the Croatian Institute for International Relations (IMO) in 1981. Samardzija also worked as Assistant Minister for European Integration of Croatia (2000-2004). She teaches at postgraduate European Studies programmes at the Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Zagreb and University of Osijek. Samardzija is a member of the Board of the Trans European Policy Studies Association (TEPSA) in Brussels and member of two negotiating groups in Croatia’s accession negotiations with the EU. She holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the Faculty of Economics, University of Zagreb (1993).


Dr. Visnja Samardzija, Head of Department for European Integration, Institute for International Relations, Croatia (Photo: courtesy of Ms Samardzija)

Dr. Visnja Samardzija, Head of Department for European Integration, Institute for International Relations, Croatia (Photo: courtesy of Ms Samardzija)