- Our South East Europe
INTERVIEW with Sven Alkalaj, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Development of regional cooperation in South East Europe – an imperative for European and Euro-Atlantic integration
Mr Minister, how important is regional cooperation for South East Europe's EU future?
Bosnia and Herzegovina has recognized the importance of regional cooperation on its path towards European and Euro-Atlantic integration. Our country has, together with our neighbours from South East Europe and even wider region, readily and decisively accepted the invitation that came from Brussels to revive cooperation in the region on all levels. Efforts to restore trust, improve good neighbourly collaboration and achieve peace and stability in the region amongst the states emerging after the dissolution of Yugoslavia commenced with the Stability Pact. With first signs of serious economic recovery, our appetites for faster improvements of economic as well as other forms of regional cooperation grew. To this effect, creation of adequate regional institutions, such as the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) that is soon to celebrate 4 years from its establishment, has been initiated. To our great satisfaction, our capital Sarajevo was selected as the RCC seat.
Regional cooperation has become a common name for all activities in the region that are complementary, but still sometimes these activities are redundantly duplicative. Regional cooperation contributes to stability of the region and creates new economic opportunities for all its countries, but it is also an important factor that draws our country, as well as all the others, closer to European and Euro-Atlantic integration. Therefore, we see our future in further development of regional cooperation.
Besides the RCC, other forms of regional initiatives have also been initiated and intensified in the region and these relate not only to the countries of the Western Balkans but also to Central European, Adriatic-Ionian and to even wider Mediterranean and Black Sea areas. The Central European Initiative (CEI) is an organisation that gathers 18 member states, out of which 9 are full EU members and the remaining 9 are at different stages of the EU approximation process. The role of CEI was obviously very significant in preparing the countries from the region that are now the EU members and it continues through projects that include Bosnia and Herzegovina.
What do you consider the most important achievements of regional cooperation in 2011?
There is no doubt that this question would be best addressed by listing projects that were successfully implemented. Of course, there are many such projects, but let me highlight something which I deem extremely important and that cannot be measured by specific figures and amounts of money. Before everything else, it is regaining of trust between states, peoples and ordinary citizens in the region. One should not forget that a good deal of states from the region had badly or completely devastated economies after the war. Now they are effaced with consequences of global economic and financial crisis. On top of that, economies of the region's countries are in the process of transition with deep political and economic changes and big burden of inherited issues from the past times. Some of these problems still represent a subject of dispute between the countries from the region but the most important thing is that we have managed to open processes for resolution of these pending issues, thus aiming to create generally positive political atmosphere between the states.
Locating and resolving of inter-state disputes in the region has enabled dialogue at the highest inter-state level through the South-East European Cooperation Process (SEECP) that has so far set a good path for solving misunderstandings between the participating states. Through the SEECP, and also through other meetings of the highest political representatives of the countries from the region, we have managed to maintain good neighbourly relations and agree on the future role of the SEECP in coordinating regional cooperation and especially joint actions towards the EU enlargement to the countries from the region. If the idea of involving all of the region's countries into European and Euro-Atlantic integration would lose its strength, majority of the countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, would be at risk of new dangerous stagnation, both in political and economic terms.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is very active within the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) structures, especially in context of finding and setting up system solutions that would lead not only to the abolishment of certain tax-free barriers but also prevent their reoccurrence in the future. In the meantime, until such integral system is created, the solution could be found in bilateral agreements or protocols on mutual recognition of documents of accredited bodies in charge of assessment of harmonisation.
In accordance with the decisions of the Joint CEFTA Committee, Bosnia and Herzegovina has chaired the CEFTA Sub-Committee on Non Tariff Barriers and Technical Barriers to Trade in 2011.
As regard the Adriatic-Ionian Initiative, we are one of the founders of the Adriatic-Ionian macro region which, together with the EU, is planning for large-scale infrastructure projects in the region. I am an optimist in this regard, as this is the area where the desirability and usefulness of regional cooperation is best demonstrated.
In your opinion, what would be the most important areas for regional cooperation in 2012?
Having in mind the current economic crisis, I think that strengthening of economic cooperation, increase in trade exchange and facilitating easier flow of goods, ideas and capital in the region should be the focus of our regional activities. To that end, the main topic of this year's CEI Summit, held in Belgrade, was the increase of competitiveness of regional economies, which speaks enough about acuteness of the topic.
Regional cooperation and networking are requirements for more successful representation at the global economic market. For the complete creation of a regional network, it is of key importance that, besides the state institutions, it also involves civil society. Regional cooperation certainly involves improvement of political and economic relations of the countries from the region, especially of the Western Balkans. It is clear that regional cooperation brings long-term benefits in terms of overcoming open issues between neighbours, establishing mutual trust and fostering our relationships.
Naturally, cooperation at the regional level represents a great possibility for exchange of experiences and support for Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially after Croatia signed the Treaty of Accession into the European Union. Bosnia and Herzegovina, despite complex internal political relations should not give up its main foreign-policy goal – to become a full-fledged member of the European Union.
So, the imperative is development of regional cooperation in South East Europe in different segments, aimed at achieving standards for European and Euro-Atlantic integration for each country individually, and region as a whole. Special focus should be put on development of regional capacities in the area of economic and social development, energy and infrastructure, justice and home affairs, security cooperation, building human capital, and development and cooperation at the level of parliaments.
What do you assess as the key challenges for stepping up the regional cooperation? How could they be overcome?
The biggest challenge is by all means good-neighbourly cooperation as resolving of pending issues in a qualitative fashion with neighbouring countries could be a kind of a generator for a successful cooperation in the region.
The Union for the Mediterranean, in which we actively take part, gathers countries of the EU and the Mediterranean. It is facing large challenges since the southern part of the Mediterranean has been "lit" by the Arabian spring, and the EU is still searching for a country that could become co-presiding to the Mediterranean Union. The answer has not been found and the summit on the highest level is constantly being postponed for the last two years. We are a Mediterranean country not only with our costal part but also with our historic heritage and political environment, and we do care to see things move forward and that the Mediterranean becomes a zone of stability and peace. Our voice is one of a multi-ethnic society that is heard and respected at "multi-Mediterranean".
How do activities of the Regional Cooperation Council contribute to an individual country's European agenda?
I believe there has not been one RCC activity in the last year of the Sarajevo Secretariat operations that was not of the wider regional significance. The Secretariat and its experts were often the key drivers, organisers or co-organisers of numerous important conferences, meetings and seminars in the region. Bosnia and Herzegovina is very pleased with the work of the RCC. There were over thirty events held in Sarajevo that were organised by the RCC, and it also successfully coordinates regional activities and implements its Strategy and Work Programme 2013. We hope that the satisfaction is mutual and that the RCC Secretariat is satisfied with us as hosts. We stand ready to continue fully supporting this cooperation.
Today, the South East European region is facing a number of both political and economic issues that might impact the region's stability, security and prosperity. The reform and reconciliation process is ongoing, but is not yet finalised. The main reason for concern in most of the Western Balkan states is building their state, consolidation of institutions and better governance. Professional, independent and reliable state service still needs to be established. Implementation of the rule of law, particularly through the judicial reform and fight against corruption and organised crime remains the key task of all the countries of the region. The dialogue among political powers and the spirit of compromise needs to triumph, especially when it comes to ethnical issues. Open issues among the neighbouring states can be resolved solely through dialogue and political compromise. To this end, I believe that the RCC will provide significant contribution in 2012 too.
I wish to use this opportunity to extend season greetings to the employees of the RCC Secretariat and to the readers of the RCC Newsletter.
Sven Alkalaj has been the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina since 2007. Prior to that, among many other duties, Alkalaj was Ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Belgium, Head of Mission of Bosnia and Herzegovina to NATO and Ambassador to the United States of America. He holds Masters Degree in International Relations from the Economic Faculty of the University of Sarajevo.