Refugee Crisis to Overshadow Balkan Summit

26 Aug 15
Refugee Crisis to Overshadow Balkan Summit

The refugee crisis is expected to dominate the Vienna summit of Western Balkan leaders on Thursday that will be attended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country expects to take in a record 800,000 migrants this year.

Dusica Tomovic, Elvira M. Jukic
Podgorica, Sarajevo

Ministers at last year’s conference | Photo by Beta.

The refugee crisis threatens to effectively hijack a high-level conference on the economic prospects and European perspectives of the Western Balkan states that opens in Vienna on Thursday.

The summit includes senior politicians from the EU and the Balkans under the patronage of the German and Austrian chancellors, Angela Merkel and Werner Faymann.

Regional leaders, including prime ministers, foreign ministers and economy ministers, hope the EU help fund a number of major infrastructure projects.

They also seek Brussels’ approval that they are on the right path in terms of the EU integration process.

This year’s summit is part of the Berlin Process, a five-year process started last August and marked by yearly summits in order to underline the commitment to EU-enlargement towards the Western Balkans region.

The focus of the initiative is on Balkans countries that are not yet EU members: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

It was announced that the main topics of the summit in Vienna will be “infrastructure and connectivity”, regional cooperation and youth.

But the refugee crisis now threatens to dominate summit in Vienna as the “Western Balkan route” has become one of the main ways into the European Union for hundreds of thousands of migrants entering the bloc in Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Some 102,000 migrants entered the EU via Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Montenegro or Kosovo between January and July this year, versus just 8,000 for the same period in 2014, according to EU border agency, Frontex.

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz on Monday said during a visit to Macedonia that the Western Balkans needs urgent help in coping with the crisis caused by the swelling number of refugees entering Macedonia and Serbia.

“The countries in the Western Balkans have been left alone. They need our help,” Kutz said after visiting a refugee camp near Gevgelija, a major entry point for refugees and migrants near Macedonia’s southern border with Greece.

Ahead of the summit, meanwhile, Bosnian Foreign Minister Igor Crnadak and the Montenegrin Interior Minister Rasko Konjevic on Wednesday will sign the border agreement between the two countries – the first border deal between the ex-Yugoslav republics.

Montenegro will also sign a border agreement with Kosovo on Wednesday.

The Vienna meeting will be an opportunity for the presentation of infrastructure projects in the region for which the EU has already pledged nearly one billion euros.

In a side-meeting, the Serbian, Kosovo and Albanian PMs, Aleksandar Vucic, Isa Mustafa and Edi Rama, will talk to the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development about the construction of a highway from Nis in southern Serbia to the Kosovo capital Pristina down to the Albanian coastal town of Durres.

For Serbian Prime Minister Vucic, the most important goal for all participants of the conferece is the wider political and economic stability of the region.

“We want to record growth again. This is what matters for us, rather than some nationalist games that some would like to play,” Vucic told the German daily Handelsblatt.

Likewise, Bosnia is looking to the summit in Vienna to improve its infrastructure and road network. The President of Bosnia’s Council of Ministers, Denis Zvizdic, seeks support for the construction of cross-border bridges in Gradiska and Svilaj, the Adriatic-Ionian highway and gas pipelines through Bosnia.

The Bosnian government on Tuesday said that it expects the conference to support the construction of 400 KV of electricity transmission lines between Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro.

The day before the Western Balkans Summit, the Civil Society Forum will stage a debate including politicians and 200 civil soiety representatives on the socio-economic and political challenges facing the region.

On Wednesday evening, top politicians from the Balkans will also play a football match against their Austrian and German counterparts and the EU officials. They will be divided into two teams: “EU” and “Future-EU”.

Albania’s Prime Minister Rama will team up with Kosov’s Hashim Thaci, Serbia’s Vucic, Macedonia’s Nikola Gruevski and Bosnian and Montenegrin ministers, Igor Crnadak and Igor Luksic.

The match will be judged by EU enlargment commissioner Johanens Hahn, while the EU team will, among others, be comprised of Slovenian Premier Miro Cerar, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, Secretary General of the Austrian Ministry of European and International Affairs Michael Linhart and other officials.

Source: Balkan Insight (Montenegro)