From a conflict prevention and confidence building initiative
in South Eastern Europe
to a regionally-owned Regional Co-operation Council
Launched in 1999, the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe is the first comprehensive conflict-prevention strategy of the international community, aimed at strengthening the efforts of the countries of South Eastern Europe in fostering peace, democracy, respect for human rights, economic prosperity and security. Over the years, the focus of the Stability Pact has shifted from confidence building among the countries torn by a decade of fighting as well as rebuilding the infrastructure destroyed by the conflicts, to a framework for regional co-operation in South Eastern Europe. Moreover, the Pact has taken on the role of supporting the integration of these countries into European and Euro-Atlantic structures by helping the countries of the region in meeting EU and NATO membership criteria.
The focus of the Stability Pact has been on the issues of democratisation, economic reconstruction, co-operation and development as well as on security issues. With its Secretariat in Brussels, it provides an important link between the countries of South Eastern Europe and the EU and NATO institutions. Specifically, it is a proven framework that fosters one of the criteria for membership in the EU and NATO: regional co-operation and good-neighbourly relations.
Why is regional co-operation necessary?
Firstly, it is a necessity in South Eastern Europe in itself – quite a few issues, from fighting organised crime, to increasing trade and attracting investment, to strengthening disaster preparedness and prevention, can only be addressed on a regional basis. To give as an example – a foreign investor will not be interested in investing into a country with a market of only 2 million consumers but a market of 23 million consumers, which is currently being established with the CEFTA 2006 agreement, makes investments in SEE much more attractive. And also, many of Stability Pacts’ international partners, such as the International Financial Institutions, are taking a regional approach to their programming, in addition to their individual country programmes.
Secondly, regional co-operation is both a prerequisite and a tool for the European and Euro-Atlantic integration of SEE. Namely, it is one of the criteria of EU and NATO membership, as the two organisations want to take in only those countries that show maturity in relations with their neighbours – regardless of how painful memories of recent events might be.
However, regional co-operation should not be mistaken for a substitute for EU and Euro-Atlantic integration. Since regional co-operation is the basis the EU itself is built upon, it is also a condition for the further integration of South Eastern Europe into the EU. Regional co-operation should thus be seen as important preparation for future EU and NATO membership.
What has the Stability Pact done so far?
Over the years, the Stability Pact has been responsible for several “success stories”. Parliamentary co-operation is now institutionalised, with the establishing of a Regional Secretariat in the National Assembly of Bulgaria. Thanks to the entry into force of CEFTA 2006, South Eastern Europe is becoming a single, large free trade area, regulated by modern rules that provide the basis for an increase in intra-regional trade and make the region more attractive to investors. Other important elements of the regional co-operation are in place – the Energy Community Treaty, the SEE Investment Committee, the co-ordination of social policies and the electronic SEE Agenda plus, promoting e-governance and information and communication technology development through the region. Four countries have formed the Sava River Commission to manage the economic and environmental issues of this important basin. There is now a common approach to addressing difficult issues such as the fight against organised crime and corruption. Best practices in the area of migration are being exchanged. Ever closer co-operation among the local authorities along the borders of SEE countries which are today being protected almost exclusively by police and not military any more. SEE countries have agreed to assume more technical and financial responsibilities in the field of disaster preparedness and prevention.
These are examples of some of the positive developments that have taken place in SEE over the past 8 years. There is no doubt that the region is much more mature today. Therefore, it can – and must – take greater ownership of its own affairs.
Bearing this in mind, a transformation and streamlining process was launched in 2005 with the final aim of having the new framework for regional co-operation in South Eastern Europe in place by 2008. In order to have an impartial assessment of the contributions of the Stability Pact so far and to receive various proposals on how the future regional co-operation framework should look, a Senior Review Group (SRG) was established in close co-ordination with Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn and comprised of Alpo Rusi of Finland as the Chairman (former Deputy Special Co-ordinator in 1999-2000), Goran Svilanovic (former Foreign Minister of Serbia and Montenegro), Vladimir Drobnjak (Chief EU negotiator for Croatia) and Franz-Lothar Altmann (German Institute for International and Security Affairs). The SRG had a mandate to make recommendations on the future of the Stability Pact and its priorities and ways to enhance regional ownership of the processes initiated by the Stability Pact.
The final report of the SRG outlined certain preconditions for a sustainable regional co-operation framework in SEE which have to be kept in mind: a strong involvement of both the South East European countries and the EU; full political commitment by the countries of the region; and involvement of the non-EU donor community during the transition process towards regional ownership.
Following a wide consultation process with countries of South Eastern Europe in 2005 and 2006, the Stability Pact’s highest decision-making body – the Regional Table in Belgrade in May 2006 –took far reaching decisions on the transformation of the Stability Pact into a more regionally-owned, streamlined and effective regional co-operation framework in South Eastern Europe. The main task of such a framework is to be a facilitator of regional co-operation and support the European and Euro-Atlantic integration, while ensuring continued involvement of the donor community, thus preserving the legacy of the Pact.
It was agreed that the streamlined Regional Co-operation Council (RCC) and its Secretariat should focus its activities on six areas which the countries of the region have already identified as those where regional co-operation will be beneficial to all: Economic and social development; Infrastructure and Energy; Justice and Home Affairs; Security Co-operation and Building Human Capital with Parliamentary Co-operation being an overarching theme that is linked with each of the other areas. These processes constitute the backbone of regional co-operation. Furthermore, most of these activities and initiatives already benefit from regional ownership, and are designed to meet the priorities for cross-border co-operation identified by the region itself. While they used to co-operate within the framework of the Stability Pact, they now move under the RCC umbrella.
While the overall framework for regional co-operation in South Eastern Europe is being transferred from the Stability Pact to the Regional Co-operation Council, it was decided that work under way in the different thematic areas will continue. Ensuring continuity in the multitude of regional co-operation processes is vital to sustaining substance or momentum. The long-term investment that he Stability Pact partners have made in the process, both political and financial, needs to be safeguarded.
Parallel discussions on several levels took place following the Belgrade meeting of the Regional Table in order to progress towards the agreement reached that the new Regional Co-operation Council would be fully operational by early 2008. Most importantly, the representatives of the region (who met under the framework of the Financial Working Group) met under the leadership of the Croatian Chairmanship-in-Office of the South Eastern European Co-operation Process (SEECP) and the Stability Pact reached consensus on a refined cost-sharing proposal to cover €1 million, the agreed annual contribution by the region to the RCC Secretariat. The financial commitments made for the initial period of three years is based on dividing the countries in four sub-groups according to their economic size, and assigning different shares to each sub-group. This progress was an important sign of the political commitment of the SEE countries to the process. After the regional governments having agreed on their financial contribution to the future RCC Secretariat, the European Commission and bilateral donors have also agreed to financially support the RCC.
The Regional Table in Zagreb on 10 May 2007 took the process further. Itendorsed the nominations of the RCC’s first Secretary General and the seat of the RCC Secretariat, and adopted the RCC Statute. The next day the Summit of the heads of State and Government of the SEECP Participating States approved the nominations of Mr Hido Biscevic, then State Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration of Croatia, to be the RCC’s first Secretary General, and of Sarajevo as host of the RCC Secretariat. The Host Country Agreement between Bosnia and Herzegovina, SEECP countries and UNMIK/Kosovo was signed in Plovdiv on 14 September 2007.
The final meeting of the three Working Tables of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe – Democracy, Economy and Security - took place on 3-4 December 2007 in Tirana. Each meeting gave special attention to past achievements, lessons learnt and remaining challenges for the RCC with regards to the Stability Pact's various initiatives and task forces. Thanks to a disciplined effort by each Working Table to streamline and rationalise the legacy of the Stability Pact, the region will take ownership of a set of consistent and self-sustainable task forces and initiatives, which, taken together, represent an impressive and sustainable regional cooperation program. Special Co-ordinator of the Stability Pact Erhard Busek as well as incoming Secretary General of the RCC Hido Biscevic presented the next steps on "The Road Ahead -Reinforcing the Regional Co-operation Agenda".
The final meeting of the Stability Pact Regional Table took place in Sofia on 27 February 2008. This meeting marked the final step in the transformation of the Stability Pact into the new regionally owned cooperation framework, the Regional Co-operation Council (RCC), the first meeting of which will took place on the same occasion. The Joint Declaration on the Establishment of the RCC was adopted as part of the meeting, which marked the formal handover from the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe to the Regional Co-operation Council.
The SEECP, and in particular by the Bulgarian and Moldovan CiO, play a key role in the transition process. The Bulgarian SEECP CiO has “baptised” the RCC by holding its Foreign Ministers meeting back-to-back with the RCC first Annual meeting, on 28 February 2008.The regional co-operation program for the RCC’s initial work is full and challenging. Meetings planned in tandem with the SEECP will address the region’s competitiveness, disaster response planning, together with issues related to defence, environment and other topics.
Ultimately, it needs to be underlined that this phased evolution of the Stability Pact into a regionally owned framework should not be interpreted as the international community withdrawing its support or leaving the region on its own. On the contrary, many of Stability Pact’s international partners have assured us that they will stay engaged, but want to see the countries of the region gradually taking more ownership of the process – politically, financially and also personnel-wise.
It is in all parties’ interest to ensure the sustainability of the co-operation processes initiated within the Pact and thus safeguard its legacy for South East Europe. There are two pre-conditions for this to be successful: enhanced regional ownership and continued international support in the transition phase. By increasingly working together to tackle and resolve common problems, the countries of South East Europe are paving their way to a credible and closer Euro-Atlantic future. The South Eastern European countries, the SEECP (as the only regionally-owned organisation so far) and the international community – must now ensure full implementation of the decisions taken so far to ensure a successful RCC.