We, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Hellenic Republic, the Republic of Bulgaria, Romania, the Republic of Slovenia and the Western Balkans partners, the Republic of North Macedonia, the Republic of Albania, the Republic of Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo*, in the presence of the Republic of Croatia, as current EU Presidency, the Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement and representatives of the European External Action Service and the Directorate General for Migration and Home Affairs met today, May 19th 2020, through Video teleconference, upon invitation of the Foreign Ministers Nikos Dendias and Nikola Dimitrov.
Since our last meeting in Thessaloniki, on February 24th 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted, in the most essential terms, the importance of a coordinated approach, cooperation and solidarity to effectively address global challenges and threats. Regional cooperation and cooperation between EU and Western Balkans is a crucial element during these times in order to jointly handle the challenges posed by the current public health crisis.
The sheer scale and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated difficult decisions and unprecedented measures, including confinement and border/boundary crossing restrictions. Such measures, which were necessary to save as many lives as possible, have a severe impact on the movement of people and goods, trade and economic activity, as well as the disruption of supply chains.
In this framework, today we reaffirmed our resolve to continue and deepen our cooperation with a view to mitigate the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, and lay the groundwork for the region’s recovery.
In this respect, we have concluded the following:
- The existing strategic partnership between the EU and Western Balkans has proven its core value at the time of the COVID-19 outbreak, during which we worked closely together. We will continue to demonstrate unity and solidarity and will step up our coordination and collaboration, in order to deal effectively with the pandemic and diminish, to the greatest possible extent, its extensive social and economic impact on our region.
- We strongly welcome the EU decision to mobilize a substantial economic package of over EUR 3,3 billion to the benefit of the Western Balkans, aiming at tackling the COVID-19 crisis and contributing significantly to the region’s immediate comprehensive socio-economic recovery. As European economic assistance will boost the economies and much needed investments in the region, the Western Balkan partners will continue to promote and implement the necessary reforms to continue their European integration course. Particular attention will be given to key sectors of the region’s social and economic life and activity, notably tourism, transport and health.
- As we now move closer towards keeping the spread of the virus in check, replacing blanket restrictions, with more targeted measures, will allow us to revive the economy and deal with the economic downturn and its extremely negative social ramifications. In this regard, we welcome European Commissions’ readiness to “associate the region closely with the implementation of its Joint European Roadmap towards lifting COVID-19 containment measures”. Beyond the financing commitment taken by the EU to support Western Balkans “post COVID-19” recovery, the reinforcement of the connectivity and a better access to the EU market should be among key deliverables that would pave the way to a stronger economic integration between the region and the EU.
- On the vital health sector, the establishment of a regular and enhanced cooperation among epidemiologists and public health experts could have real added value for the overall containment of the pandemic and the prevention of its further spreading. This cooperation could foster the creation of a regional network of hospitals and health care units that should cooperate in order to treat COVID-19 patients. Experts and health professionals should exchange views with regard to the development of health protocols for hospitality establishments and deliberate on the criteria, as well as for the safe and gradual restoration of tourism activities.
- Regarding transport, a coordinated framework to safely restore transport and connectivity at bilateral and regional levels should become a priority. In this context we welcome the European Commission’s initiative to ensure “fast flow of goods through Green Lanes linking the EU and the Western Balkans”. The “Green lanes” linking the EU to the Western Balkans must remain “green” also in the post emergency period in order to improve significantly the intra WB and the EU-WB’s accessibility. This will require progressive removal of all unnecessary obstacles of both administrative and infrastructure nature affecting the flow of goods and passengers between WB and EU. Restoring movement, reopening borders/boundaries and lifting imposed measures should be a gradual process, based on epidemiological assessment and implemented in a coordinated manner. The health of transport workers and passengers and the swift minimization of any risk regarding the resurgence of the pandemic will be top priority. The Transport Community will be instrumental in addressing these priorities.
- Given that the tourism sector, which now faces an unprecedented challenge, constitutes a major component of our region’s economies and societies, we remain fully committed to actively support all efforts and measures aiming at mitigating the pandemic’s negative impact. A coordination process amongst competent authorities, at regional level, and regular cross-border/boundary communication could be taken into consideration in order to facilitate restauration and resumption of tourism activities, including cross-border/boundary traffic. Taking full advantage of available national and EU funds, designing and implementing specialized and targeted regional and interregional strategiesto back up the tourist industry (businesses and people) and fully supporting unemployed people to regain access to the labour market, in particular the youth, could form a considerable part of policies and measures aiming at benefiting the tourism sector at national and regional level.
- In this spirit, we are ready to discuss, at the level of the competent authorities, the best ways to gradually ease restrictions, depending on the situation at national and EU level, with regard to cross-border/boundary travel and in tourism, a sector which has been particularly hit by the crisis and constitutes an important driver of growth and job-creation for many countries in the region. The Tourism and Transport package presented by the European Commission on May 13th, 2020, that includes a set of guidelines and recommendations to help the European Union Member States to gradually lift travel restrictions and allow tourism businesses to reopen, while respecting necessary health precautions, could be a valuable asset in this respect, will also serve as guidelines for the Western Balkans.
- Maintaining good neighbourly relations and inclusive regional cooperation, are essential elements of the EU Enlargement and Stabilization and Association Processes. They can and should facilitate a concerted and effective regional approach and response to the pandemic, reaffirming once more its usefulness and merit. The Western Balkans should also take full advantage of regional cooperation potential with a view to facilitating the economic recovery of the region, along with the strong support of the EU. Young people from the region need perspective in form of productive and meaningful opportunities back home. Ensuring positive perspective for the youth should remain a priority.
- We underline the importance of the full respect for individual rights and freedoms, as well as independent media and the free exchange of accurate and reliable information. We stress out the challenges of false or manipulated information on the spread of COVID-19, which can put people’s lives and the resilience of the societies at risk. In this context, we are determined to combat the proliferation of disinformation, as well as hate speech. In this respect, European Union support and solidarity with the Western Balkans, in the context of the COVID crisis, deserve public acknowledgement and communication in the region, in order to combat disinformation attempts.
- Finally, recalling our first meeting last February in Thessaloniki, the Sofia Summit in 2018, the historic decision of the EU Council in March 2020 to open accession negotiations with the Republic of North Macedonia and the Republic of Albania and the Zagreb Summit in 2020, which once again reaffirmed the EU’s unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans and underlined the unity and solidarity in combating the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on societies and economies, we reiterate our firm support to the European Union membership perspective of the Western Balkans, in accordance with the principle of own merits, and we agree to meet again in order to reassert progress achieved and the way forward./ibna
* This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244/1999 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence