The final panel of the opening day of the Young BSF 2019 brought together diplomatic representatives from the Western Balkans and the Visegrad Group countries under the title Let’s Talk about Cross-Regional Cooperation: WB6 and V4.
The discussion, organised in partnership with the International Visegrad Fund, saw the panelists agreeing on the importance and key benefits of regional cooperation, which were outlined at the outset by the Deputy Head of Mission at the Czech Embassy Mr Jan Beneš. He pointed to regional cooperation increasing trust, which notably helps neighbors overcome historical grievances, to practical effects on business, culture, security etc, to cooperation enabling small states to jointly purse common interests both within organizations – notably also in the the EU – and in the global political sphere, as well as to the identity building effects of such cooperation.
The Charge d’Affairs of the Polish Embassy Mrs Kamilla Duda Kawecka added that regional cooperation was in fact a cornerstone of the EU. As for its quality as a platform allowing to address bilateral issues, the Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of Slovakia Mr Lukaš Kajan noted there had been a period where V4 was the only publicly acceptable platform for talks between Slovakian and Hungarian officials.
The Charge D’Affairs at the Hungarian Embassy Ms Krisztina Varju argued that there are common interest in Central Europe that are sometimes not understood entirely in Western Europe, “so we have to advocate them together”. She pointed out that V4 has four governments from different political families in Europe working well together and noted that for instance since 2016 trade between Germany and the V4 has been exceeding that between Germany and France.
The representatives of Western Balkan countries – the Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of Montenegro Ms Mirela Tuzović, the Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of Serbia Ms Mirjana Jeremić and Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of Albania Mr Ilir Shqina – highlighted regional cooperation among their countries’ key foreign policy priorities, stressing upon a query from the young participants that such cooperation was also a goal in itself with the benefits it produces and not only a stepping stone on the way to EU membership. Ms Tuzović noted that regional cooperation had indeed been vital in addressing open bilateral issues, an important element in the countries’ effort to join the EU.
The panelists from the Western Balkans agreed V4 has been a success story and also highlighted the Visegrad countries’ concrete support, political and with concrete advice, when it comes EU membership efforts of the Western Balkans.
Among the crucial lessons the WB6 can take from V4, Ms Varju pointed to the trust that allowed the V4 countries to tackle hard questions – even if the wounds are still fresher in the Western Balkans, this could also apply there – , she highlighted the International Visegrad Fund that funds tangible initiatives, while she also pointed out the V4 was not institutionalised but was instead based on daily cooperation between officials appointed for this purpose.
While Mr Kajan also reiterated the need for reforms in the Western Balkans and for patience, Ms Jeremić argued the EU integration process for the region had been very protracted, its dynamic too slow and that the EU had a responsibility towards the region as well.
The panelists agreed with remarks from the young participants that the cooperation needed to be internalised as opposed to EU-driven while Ms Varju rejected the suggestion from one of the Young BSF participants that the V4 countries may not be the best role model for the EU accession efforts of the WB6 if respect for the rule of law is taken as a crucial criterion – she argued the rule of law accusations against some of the V4 members were of political nature.
Mr Kajan for his part dismissed the concern that the two regions were not really comparable, given that the cooperation agenda of the V4 had been more NATO membership driven, while positions on NATO are divided in the Western Balkans. “You have no alternative – what else is there but the EU and NATO? … Even in Slovakia some people are still looking to Russia as a dream country. But when I ask them: ‘Do you ever go there, even as a tourist?’ No. nobody is going there, so what are we talking about? There is no alternative.”