Discussion of the priorities and goals of the CEFTA organisation under Kosovo’s 2018 chairmanship took place in Brussels Press Club on Wednesday. Speaking at the meeting, Kosovo’s ambassador to the EU Bernard Nikaj said improving regional cooperation and increasing trade will be CEFTA’s priorities under Kosovo’s leadership, all of which will be done with an eye on bringing Pristina closer to the EU.
“In last few years the region has made serious advances in terms of creating a free trade area that all countries of the Western Balkans agreed with…we hope that CEFTA will help to foster further growth in the trade of goods and services among its members. Chairing CEFTA is a huge responsibility in terms of our contribution to bringing the whole region closer to the EU,” said Nikaj.
At present, the implementation of the free trade agreement in the region faces a number of challenges that include serious restrictions imposed by Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina on the freedom movement, non-recognition of educational diplomas and certificates, as well as a lack of mechanisms that could push members to fulfil the terms of CEFTA regarding trade facilitation.
The main reason behind these problems lies mainly within the framework of strained historical relations between the individual Western Balkan nations. Brussels’ active pursuit of EU enlargement in the region is key to guaranteeing the type of security and stability that will help reach a lasting settlement to local conflicts that stretch back to the fall of Communism on the peninsula in the early 1990s.
Despite the long-term aspirations of the Western Balkans to become full EU members, the European Commission under Jean-Claude Juncker’s presidency, did not make enlargement a priority and has neglected the region for the last few years.
Brussels’ conscious decision to disregard the region came to a logical end as open discontent in Albania, Montenegro and Serbia – related to the slow progress in the enlargement process – prompted Brussels to revisit its policy.
In December 2017, the managing director for Europe and Central Asia at the European External Action Service, Thomas Mayr Harting, reassured the countries of the region that the EU remains committed to the integration process. He went so far as to proclaim that the Western Balkans will receive “a clear signal” about the EU’s commitments by no later than February 2018.
Barbara Banki, Head of Unit at Directorate-General at the EU Commission responsible for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations, who also participated in the discussion, reiterated the EU’s commitment towards the region having gone on record to say that the Commission is currently preparing a strategy for the Western Balkans which will re-launch the process for integration the region into the EU.
CEFTA is a free trade agreement between non-EU countries that is aimed at boosting socio-economic development through an increase in trade and investment promotion. At present, its members include Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Moldova.