Berlin Conference-Goers Pledge Cooperation in West Balkans

BERLIN, Aug. 28, 2014 (BETA) - Participants of the Western Balkans conference in Berlin on Aug. 28 pledged commitment to regional cooperation and stressed the importance of joint infrastructure projects.

The assembly, hosted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, included the premiers and foreign ministers of Western Balkan countries, Croatia and Slovenia, but also European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule.

A declaration passed at the conclusion of the congress reads that the Western Balkans has made great strides in creating stability, developing good neighborly relations and modernizing government, society and the economy, in which the European Union's enlargement policy has played a crucial role.

"All of the participants underline the need to resolve outstanding bilateral questions as quickly as possible in the interests of good neighbourly relations and increased stability in the region. The prime ministers of Serbia and Kosovo reiterated their determination to revitalise the process of normalising relations", the declaration says.

Barroso told a news conference held jointly with Merkel and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama that the EU wanted Western Balkan countries to become members, but that further EU expansion would not happen overnight.

Barroso said regional integration and cooperation were key for European integration, adding that the participants of the Berlin conference had discussed overcoming the numerous practical stumbling blocks in the region caused by a lack of regional cooperation.

Merkel said the Western Balkans' nations had a real prospect of EU membership, pointing out that joint infrastructure projects would lead to better understanding among Balkan states.

European Commissioner for Energy Gunther Oettinger stressed at the conference how important energy sector investments were, especially those that shored up energy infrastructure between EU members and the Western Balkans, but the power grid within the region too.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic told reporters in Berlin that Serbia's delegation brought several ideas regarding politics and economics, one of them being the expanding of free trade in goods and services, i.e. a customs union in the CEFTA region. He also described a proposal to form a CEFTA, Croatia and Slovenia youth organization, modeled after the Franco-German Youth Office.

Vucic went on to say that Belgrade was putting forward three significant infrastructure projects -- the Belgrade-Sarajevo railway, the Belgrade-Podgorica-Bar railway and the Nis-Pristina highway. He said the financing had been partly secured from the EU, while grants and so-called soft EU loans were needed for the remainder.

German Vice Chancellor and Economic Affairs and Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel announced at the opening of the assembly that Western Balkans conferences would be held every year, noting that Austria would host the next one, and France the one after that.

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