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With the Paris Summit, the EU’s Balkan Connectivity Agenda Takes Shape

By Blerina Mecule

The Western Balkans Summit 2016, which occurred on 4 July in Paris, saw several historic decisions. Given that in 2014 then-incoming EU Commissioner Juncker stated that there would be no EU enlargement until at least 2020, the Paris event was the latest in a series (following the Berlin and Vienna summits) meant to keep up regional EU momentum, in the absence of actual enlargement. The next such event will occur in Rome in 2017.

In Paris, the leaders of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia all met and agreed several initiatives that will lead towards greater regional integration. These included the creation of a Western Balkans Union, and a single market within the framework of future Euro-Atlantic integration.

The Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO)- a New EU-Backed Initiative Based in Albania

At the Paris event, regional leaders agreed to establish a new Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO). Leaders consider this an important step to healing past wounds, and hope it will match the success of the Franco-German Youth Office (FGYO), which brought French and German youth together after WWII. The framework for the new Balkan version of this initiative had already been created during the summit in Vienna, as part of the Berlin Process.

According to Balkan Insight, the new Regional Youth Cooperation Office is the first case in which all regional governments have jointly cooperated in one institution that they also jointly fund. In fact, the Western Balkan countries will contribute 58% of the budget.

The office’s annual budget will be 2 million euros (from the five countries, as well as from external donors). RYCO will be based in Tirana, as leaders and the EU consider Albania a country which has played a moderate and constructive role in regional cooperation initiatives.

After the Paris signing ceremony, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić told media that “we agreed that the office will be located in Tirana.” Meanwhile, Serbian youth minister Vanja Udovičić told Tanjug that “this office will be one of the key pillars of the stability in the region and this is just the start. Through dialogue, youth will overcome the problems we are now facing.”

Also, a few days before the recent Paris Summit, Albanian Minister of Youth and Social Welfare Blendi Klosi declared from Brussels that along with the bilateral energy and economy cooperation, youth connectivity and regional cooperation is a key process for mutual reconciliation.

The memorandum of cooperation between Albania and Serbia was thus converted into a common agenda of different activities for Albanian and Serbian youth, to be extended to all Western Balkan youth as well.

Hence the establishment of the RYCO in Tirana is of regional strategic importance, as it will focus on projects that foster cooperation, enhance mobility, support reconciliation, building peace and stability, and ensuring prosperity for young people from across the Balkans.

How It Started: the Berlin Process

The road to Paris 2016 started in Berlin, under the leadership of Chancellor Merkel. She has strongly promoted and continually supported the EU prospect of all Western Balkan states, and searched for ways to bring a new dynamism to regional cooperation, by promoting the spirit of collaboration and reconciliation among regional countries.

More tangibly, Merkel and EU leaders see improving, building and connecting transport and energy infrastructure within the Western Balkans and with the European Union as drivers for growth and jobs. They envision that such developments will bring clear benefits for the region’s economies and citizens.

The Berlin Process owes its name to the place where it began: the German Federal Foreign Office Guest House, Villa Borsig in Berlin. Situated on the banks of Lake Tegel, the Villa was host to meetings where the process began on 28 August 2014.  This was symbolic timing, as it was the centennial anniversary of the outbreak of WWI.

On that day, the heads of government, foreign ministers and economics ministers of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia, as well as European Commission representatives, met for the first time. It was officially known as the Western Balkans Conference in Berlin: Commitment to the European perspective.

United in the aim of enhancing regional economic cooperation and laying the foundations for sustainable growth, they agreed to provide a framework for 2014-2018: it was meant to include real progress in reforms, in resolving outstanding bilateral and internal issues, and in achieving reconciliation within and between the societies in the region.

The prevailing ideology of the EU’s approach to common initiatives in the Balkan reflects previous statements, like that of ex-Commissioner José Manuel Barroso. When accepting the EU’s collective Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, he stated that “the genius of the founding fathers was precisely in understanding that to guarantee peace in the 20th century, nations needed to think beyond the nation-state.” The recent initiatives in the Balkans (not to mention some approaches to the migration crisis) reflect this view.

Energy, Infrastructure and Serbia-Albania Relations

Indeed, projects that tend towards fostering common regional economic initiatives, regional business development and energy routes, connecting transport and energy infrastructures have proven fundamental for the Western Balkans Euro-Atlantic path- and their attractiveness to foreign investments, by functioning as a unified market.

For example, strategic infrastructure projects connecting Southeastern Europe with the European Union (within The European Energy Security Strategy) created opportunities for developing Serbian-Albanian bilateral relations development and dialogue. Together, both countries constitute a strategic corridor in transport and energy infrastructure, connecting a part of the Western Balkans to the European Union.

Security: NATO, The Paris Summit, Albania and the New Centre on Foreign Fighters

Regarding security challenges, Paris participants expressed their concern regarding terrorism and radicalization, especially among young people, recalling the importance of closer cooperation between EU member states and the Western Balkans. In order to better address the threat of terrorism and radicalization, they also agreed to reinforce the role of the Southeast European Law Enforcement Centre in the fight against these phenomena, including through strengthening the cooperation with Europol.

The Final Declaration of the Paris Summit underlines that the European continent is exposed to unprecedented security challenges, such as large-scale terrorist attacks. The Western Balkans is encouraged to strengthen regional cooperation, which remains a key element for the stability of the region and Europe.

Albania is also a member of NATO and together with Croatia has long backed NATO expansion in the Balkans, to secure a sustainable peace in the region. Albania will also host the NATO Centre on Foreign Fighters, which is the first NATO center of its kind, and will study the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters. It is expected be activated this year. had predicted this outcome since last year, as a recommendation of the Obama Administration in the US. Albania was chosen to host the center due to its geostrategic importance to the US and NATO.

According to the President of the NATO Assembly, Michael Turner, the Alliance and the EU have brought security and stability to the Balkans, and have helped it to overcome the conflicts brought about by the dissolution of Yugoslavia. According to him, further improving regional security depends on continued Euro-Atlantic integration.

Therefore, NATO supporters believe it is possible to harmonize the unique nation-state identities of different Balkan countries within a neighborhood umbrella of a common Balkan identity. This in turn is considered part of a European identity, within Euro-Atlantic structures (the European Union and NATO).

The Paris Summit and Future EU Membership for Serbia and Albania

During the Berlin Process meeting in 2014, Barroso also highlighted the importance of a clear EU perspective for Western Balkan countries: “our common goal is clear,” said the former commissioner.We want to see the Western Balkan countries ultimately join the European Union. This is in our joint political, economic and geo-strategic interest. This is the right way to defend the long-term prosperity of all the citizens in our European family and also to defend the European stability.”

That was the spirit of Berlin, but Paris 2016 was quite different, happening as it did in the immediate aftermath of Brexit. There was great concern that the historic Brexit event, combined with the internal problems and enlargement fatigue gripping Europe, would dominate the Paris Summit.

However, the event turned out to be a platform for relaunching the EU initiative. In fact, Federica Mogherini, while underlining the importance of the Paris Summit, stated that the EU clearly reiterated its enlargement policy for the Balkan countries: “the message is loud and clear: we are going to continue.”

On the other hand, according to europeanwesternbalkans, Chancellor Merkel – the initiator of the Berlin Process – stated that she perceives Balkan states’ accession as happening at “different speeds.”

During the Paris summit, The European Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement, Johannes Hahn, announced that Serbia had been given the green light to start accession talks, and that Croatia would no longer block the opening of Serbia’s chapters 23 and 24, which deal with the rule of law, the judiciary and human rights.

Serbia and Albania are expected to join the EU in 2020, depending on their reform pace. Albania was expected to open accession talks late this year, but it looks like the perceived lack of internal political dialogue on judiciary reforms will delay this.

Focus on Regional Interconnectivity: Energy Goals and EU Funding

The process of globalization has shifted national priorities towards internationally interconnected economic and trade interests, which in the case of the Western Balkans provides a valid alternative to ethnic and national divisions, which have historically had both positive and negative consequences, even leading to wars at various times. One example recently examined by was Chinese investment potential.

Sustainable economic growth constitutes the basis of a prosperous future for the region. In order to achieve this goal, the Paris summit focused its efforts on increasing connectivity and opportunities for mutually beneficial trade in the region.

The Paris Package’s Connectivity Agenda, the co-financing of Investment Projects in the Western Balkans 2016, constitutes a wide-ranging effort to modernize and integrate the region’s economic and transportation infrastructure.

According to statements made by Commission Hahn, connectivity is not merely about expensive infrastructure projects. New highways only make sense if existing networks are properly maintained, and there is little point in investing in expensive energy inter-connectors without a willingness to pursue energy trade within the region.

The EU has set aside up to €1bn for connectivity investment projects and technical assistance for 2014-2020. The EU provided the first €200mn at the Western Balkans Summit in Vienna in August 2015, for 10 priority projects.

As regards connectivity, the Paris summit was an opportunity for the participants to agree upon a list of three new railway projects, which will receive EU co-financing of almost €100mn in addition to financing, from international financial institutions and the national budgets of the Western Balkan participants.

The parties welcomed the launch of an initiative to ramp up investment in energy efficiency in residential buildings and sustainable development through additional EU funding of €50mn. The latter includes a program to examine the best ways to develop the region’s hydropower potential.

In addition, the EU has commissioned a regional hydropower master plan for the Western Balkans, which will help define how to develop the region’s hydropower potential in a way that balances energy generation with environmental concerns.

On energy, participants agreed on a road map for a regional market for electricity in the Western Balkans in order to facilitate the exchange of resources, to ensure better use of existing power systems, integrating renewable energy production and, eventually, connecting the regional market to that of the EU.

The European Commission will also follow up on this initiative, with support from the Energy Community secretariat. Progress on the implementation of the road-map will be reflected in future EU funding decisions.

Connectivity: Specific Infrastructure by Country and EU Participation

This “connectivity agenda” includes an investment and co-financing package to improve the links within the Western Balkans and with the EU in the strategic infrastructure areas such as the Trans-European Transport network (TEN-T).

This includes core network, core network corridors and pre-identified priority projects for infrastructure investment and has been defined. Extending the TEN-T core network corridors to the Western Balkans ensures closer integration with the EU as well as the basis for leveraging investment in infrastructure.

The Regional Core Transport Network – 2016 Investment Projects co-financed through Instrument for Pre-accession (IPA) funds assistance is outlined below.

These projects are being planned through the Western Balkans Investment Framework. The following statistical data and descriptions are based on official information.


Orient/East-Med Corridor: Serbia-Bulgaria CXc Rail Interconnection (official EU page)

Partners: Ministry of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure, Serbia/JSC Serbian Railways Infrastructure (Železnice Srbije Akcionarsko Društvo)

Estimated cost: €84.4 million

EU contribution: €40.7 million (works and supplies) €2.9 million (project implementation support)

Estimated EIB loan: €36.7 million

Expected Results: 80km of CXc railway track will be upgraded to TEN-T standards, including preparatory works for electrification and signaling and telecommunication systems.

Increase in passenger and freight travel speed from 30 km/h to 120 km/h, as well as in freight capacity to 22.9 tonnes axle load, throughout the CXc Sicevo to Dimitrovgrad section.

Benefits: Approximately 550 new jobs created during construction as well as operation and maintenance periods. Direct access to modern means of transport for more than 340,000 people living along the rail route proposed for rehabilitation. Decrease in current pollution levels caused by diesel operations. Reduced operational and maintenance costs for railway operators. Better opportunities for socio- economic growth for one of the poorest regions in Serbia. Improved trade flows with countries in the region and thus a positive impact on the broader economy of Serbia.

Estimated start date: Mid-2017

Estimated end date: End of 2019

Estimated loan repayment period: 15 years


Orient/East-Med Corridor: The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia-Kosovo-Serbia R10 Rail Interconnection (official EU page)

Partners: Kosovo Railways JSC (InfraKos Sh. A.) / Ministry of Finance, Kosovo

Estimated cost: €42.3 million

EU contribution: €17.2 million (works and supplies)

  • €1.0 million (project implementation support)

Estimated EBRD contribution: €8.6 million loan/ €0.5 million (project implementation support)

Estimated EIB loan: €9.2 million

Beneficiary contribution: €5.8 million

Expected Results: 35 km of railway tracks and 5 railway stations upgraded to modern, TEN-T standards, on the Fushë Kosovë/Kosovo Polje to Mitrovicë/Mitrovica R10 route. Increase in passenger and freight travel speed from 20 km/h to 100 km/h as well as freight axle load to 22.5 tonnes

Benefits: Secure and efficient rail transport for approximately 50% of the population of Kosovo. More than 160 new jobs created during construction as well as operation and maintenance periods. Passenger and cargo rail capacity improved by more than 1.2 million people and 1.2 million tones, respectively. Improved trade flows with countries in the region and thus a positive impact on the broader economy of Kosovo.

Estimated Start Date: Mid-2017

Estimated End Date: End of 2019

Estimated Loan Repayment Period: 20 years


Mediterranean Corridor: Montenegro-Albania-Greece Rail Interconnection

Partners: Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure, Albania/Albanian Railways S.A. (Hekurudha Shqiptare/HSH)

Estimated cost: €81.5 million

EU contribution: €32.9 million (works and supplies) / €2.5 million (project implementation support)

Estimated EBRD loan: €32.9 million

Beneficiary contribution: €13.2 million

Expected Results: 34.5 km of railway track, from Tirana to Durrës, partly rehabilitated to modern, TEN-T standards, including signaling and telecommunication (but excluding electrification). Involves 7.4 km of new railway track built between Tirana and Rinas international airport. Increase in passenger and freight travel speed from 60 km/h to 120 km/h, as well as in freight axle load to 22.9 tonnes, throughout the Tirana-Durrës section.

Benefits: More than 1,375 new jobs created during construction as well as operation and maintenance periods. Direct access to modern means of transport for more than 1 million people living along the Tirana-Durrës rail route. Reduced operational and maintenance costs for railway operators active in Albania, estimated at more than €60 million. Savings in cost of travel time, estimated at more than €55 million. Improved environmental conditions by reducing freight and passenger transport by road. Improved trade flows with countries in the region and thus a positive impact on the broader economy of Albania.

Estimated Start Date: Mid-2017

Estimated End Date: End of 2019

Estimated Loan Repayment Period: 15 years

Additional Chinese Investment- Albania and the New Silk Road

On April 26, 2016, China Everbright and Friedmann Pacific Asset Management announced the acquisition of Tirana International Airport SHPK, which operates the Albanian capital’s major airport. The group will take over the airport until 2025, with a two-year extension to 2027 after approval from the Albanian government.

More recently, on June 6, the government announced that it was ready to work with China State Construction (CSC) on the 16-mile Arber Road project leading east to Macedonia. The project value is 200 million euros).

Further, as we have already reported on, China has a growing interest in investing in energy projects and infrastructure in the Balkans, as it is working to connect Europe and Asia through the New Silk Road project. This has significant ramifications, economic and political, for the whole Balkan region.

China and Greece

While the Paris summit gathered heads of states and ministers from the Western Balkan countries and from the EU, Beijing reserved an impressive reception for Alexis Tsipras. A few hours before the Greek prime minister started his first official visit to China, with a large delegation made up of officials and businessmen, Greek lawmakers ratified with an overwhelming majority the landmark concession agreement with China’s COSCO Shipping for the acquisition of a majority stake in Piraeus Port Authority (PPA or OLP in Greek).

During his visit, Tsipras met with his Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang. According to, the issues they talked and agreed about were the six Greek investment proposals relating to China’s participation in the competitions for Thriassio Field and Kastelli airport, Chinese shipbuilding activity in Greece, Chinese investments in the Greek banking sector, expansion of agricultural exports and food from Greece to China, the creation of a Research and Development center in Greece, investments in tourist properties, and the increase of Chinese tourism with direct flights from Beijing to Athens, as well as cooperation in the cultural and education sectors. The two delegations signed nine agreements in the respective sectors.

“Our relationship with China is like a bicycle. One wheel is economic cooperation and the other cooperation in culture and education…we are the cyclists who will develop our two countries,” stated Tsipras.

Balkan Connectivity- Ancient and Modern

From the Paris summit to the recent Greek-Chinese discussions, it is clear that the investment package of trans-European strategic corridors, which include rail, road, air and sea transport networks and energy infrastructures is a key driver, not just for further integration between EU member states and their peoples, and also for increasing economic competitiveness.

One might note too that the connectivity agenda of trans-national transport and energy corridors is based on the ancient achievements in this part of Europe. In the 2nd century BC, the Balkans was an intersection of the commercial routes and exchanges between West and East; the Roman Empire decided to invest money in building the Via Egnatia. It was designed and built by Roman engineers.

This strategic road (a follow-up of the Via Apia) connected parts of today’s Italy, Albania, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey, right up to the Bosporus. Thus, the Appia-Egnatia corridor also represented a kind of European ‘soft diplomacy.’ The ancient Connectivity Agenda created communication and dialogue between the main empires of the day. Hence, similar connectivity in the 21st century can generate and further strengthen dialogue and communication between Europe and Asia.

Based on further extension and development of the integrated energy and transport infrastructures at a European level, the EU Connectivity Agenda can further strengthen neighborhood relations and further develop the cohesion between different European macro-regions, within the EU and between the EU and its neighboring countries.

Therefore, if it turns out to match its backers’ expectations, the 21st century connectivity project will be a smart, sustainable and inclusive bridge connecting East and West. After the Paris summit, the next similar event will be held in Rome in 2017. Until then, it is expected that substantial progress will be made by regional countries regarding the agreed investments packages of connectivity.