- Guest Commentator

Hansjörg Brey
Executive Director, Southeast Europe Association, Munich, Germany

Regional cooperation needs tireless work of an institution like the RCC

After four years of existence, the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), itself being the successor organization of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, has taken an indispensable role as the institution that steers and monitors regional cooperation in South East Europe. The record of RCC’s activities, as described in the recent Annual Report of the Secretary General for 2011 and 2012, is indeed impressive. With the RCC’s establishment in Sarajevo in 2008, the region has taken the ownership in regional cooperation.

If we take a closer look at the state of affairs, there is however little reason for much optimism as concerns the commitment to regional cooperation on the side of political actors in the region. Secretary Biscevic was right when, in a recent interview, he assessed the main challenges of regional cooperation in South East Europe (SEE) as follows: “its engine and its fuel come even more from Brussels than from the authentic recognition of the real values and advantages of cooperation in the region”[1].

Let me shortly dwell on some of the realities to be seen on the ground. Luckily enough, much of the vision of the inventors of the Stability Pact in 1999, in fostering peace, democracy, respect of human rights, economic prosperity and stability in the region, today has come true – despite the long list of democratic deficits and economic and social turmoil. With the exception of Kosovo*, all countries have signed Stabilization and Association Agreements, others have become EU members or are on the verge of membership. Most citizens enjoy visa-free travel to the Schengen area.

With new foreign policy issues coming to the forefront and forces bound in fighting against the economic crisis, further European Union (EU) enlargement is rather down on the agenda of any EU country. On the other hand, when Montenegro starts accession negotiations with the EU these days, this may be seen as a proof that the EU has not completely closed its doors for new members from the western Balkan countries. The painful (and open-ended) accession process that Montenegro has started also demonstrates that the transformative power of the membership perspective remains effective. Montenegro has found itself on a fast track to EU membership. This is partly due to the fact that the country has been by and large a success story in conflict resolution – be it through its soft divorce from Serbia or with regard to its managing of domestic inter-ethnic relations. Not surprisingly, Montenegro has been better committed to regional cooperation as compared to some of its neighbors.

Whereas violence in the former Yugoslav republics has been mostly contained by international intervention, post-conflict stabilization is still an unfinished business in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and, most prominently, in Serbia and Kosovo*. Unresolved inter-ethnic and border issues are indeed strong disincentives for regional cooperation. The power of the EU has been extremely limited especially in solving the issue of Kosovo* sovereignty with Serbia, with five EU countries not having recognized Kosovo*’s independence. Importantly, true reconciliation is still not achieved in the ex-Yugoslav space. Some politicians have made substantial steps in that direction (like the acting Croatian and the former Serbian president), unfortunately followed by backward-oriented rhetoric by others (namely the newly elected Serbian president). Whereas transitional justice has been partly achieved through pressure from outside, reconciliation has to go a long way as long as war criminals are considered national heroes by a substantial part of the populace. At least, civil society initiatives like Coalition for Reconciliation Commission (REKOM) do a great job in reconciliation within the post-Yugoslav space.

While the “stick” of EU conditionality is still enhancing institutional change and the rule of law, recent autocratic tendencies in some – partly new – EU countries are anything but an example of good democratic conduct to be followed, including good neighborly relations. Economic crisis and social decline provide a fertile ground for populism and nationalist rhetoric and stand against approaches of cooperation and reconciliation.

The situation being as it is, there is little hope for regional leaders in SEE – except from some exceptions – transforming into powerful “engines” of regional cooperation. But, we should demand (and the EU has some power to do so) that the political actors in the region do not obstruct cooperation, that they adhere to pragmatic and flexible solutions. When the “Kosovo*” arrangement was reached within the EU-facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Prishtina, everyone was hoping that this would be the breakthrough that would enable delegates from Serbia and Kosovo* to participate in regional meetings. It was the reading-design of the name-plates that prevented the parties from convening at one table – a sad example of narrow-mindedness winning over good will and pragmatism.

Regional cooperation needs the tireless work of an institution like the RCC. Yet, there is much room for a more serious, pragmatic and genuine commitment and responsibility of the RCC / South-East European Cooperation Process (SEECP) member states. Ways and levers to enhance this commitment have to be found. The continuous engagement of the EU with its conditionality complemented by pressure from the domestic civil society organizations, are key to this goal.

Dr. Hansjörg Brey, (German national, born 1956) is Executive Director of Southeast Europe Association (Südosteuropa-Gesellschaft / SOG) in Munich, Germany. He is also Editor-in-Chief of the SOG’s renowned bi-monthly journal “Südosteuropa Mitteilungen”. As a forum for communication and exchange of information the SOG assembles more than 800 members from politics, business, academia and media and is a unique hub of expertise in the German speaking area. The SOG organises international conferences, lectures and workshops addressing various issues regarding Southeast Europe countries, including regional cooperation.

[1] Commentary by Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council, Hido Biščević, to BiH News Agency FENA, Sarajevo, BiH, 5 July 2012

* This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo Declaration of Independence.



Hansjörg Brey, Executive Director, Southeast Europe Association, Munich, Germany (Photo: courtesy of Mr. Brey)

Hansjörg Brey, Executive Director, Southeast Europe Association, Munich, Germany (Photo: courtesy of Mr. Brey)