More than 500 delegates gathered at the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development’s London headquarters this morning for a day-long conference on investing in the Western Balkans – the first to group all the heads of government of the Western Balkans and Croatia to discuss future economic cooperation.
“This is a unique occasion. The format of this meeting - with all regional prime ministers in attendance - sends a strong political message of the newly achieved stability of the region,” EBRD President Suma Chakrabarti said.
“We hope that this all-inclusive meeting may pave the way to regular meetings in the future in order to further improve coordination of policies at the top level,” he added. “The EBRD will be happy to help this process continue.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who met the heads of government during the morning’s events, later tweeted: “Impressive to see 7 Heads of Gov from the Balkans at the @EBRD in London today. Spoke to them about building strong economies.”
Sir Suma underscored that the EBRD - which invested €1.2 billion in Western Balkans and Croatia last year, bringing its commitments to a total of €10.5 billion since the Bank began work in the region in the early 1990s - would “continue investing in all countries of the region and supporting their economic development.”
Together with the European Union, it would also seek “to promote regional cooperation in the Western Balkans, which is indispensable for its sustainable development and stability.”
“This meeting’s really very important symbolically. It shows that this is now a region which wants to work together and is beginning to work together. It’s becoming more stable, more modern and moving forward on the European path,” he said.
“But there are also some very important concrete and practical objectives of this forum today. We have here an economic partnership between these seven nations, whose aim is to jointly increase growth and produce economic stability. Core to this partnership are initiatives which are going to boost individual economies, as well as the region as the whole, and we in the EBRD are strongly supporting the process.”
On the margins of the conference, the EBRD and European Investment Fund (EIF) signed a €14.5 million subscription agreement to support small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the Western Balkans region under the Western Balkans Enterprise Expansion Fund (ENEF).
Work is underway on finding ways to improve coordination in the prioritising of regional projects, binding the region together with cross-border investments.
And a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between Albania and the EBRD with the aim of reenergising the country’s economic reform process and efforts to improve business environment.
In implementing its unique transition mandate, Sir Suma added, the EBRD is working both with the public and private sectors, including small and medium-sized enterprises, “which are the real backbone of this region’s economy and which provide the largest share of employment in the region. The Bank has just approved a Small Business Initiative, which aims to marry money with the sort of expertise that businesses need to tap in to. It is designed to achieve the optimal mix of financing and policy dialogue at country level, improved coordination between the international financial institutions in this area, and donor engagement.”
Speaker after speaker at the opening session recalled the Balkan region’s conflict-ridden past, expressing pleasure that it was now consigned to history, and spoke of their hopes of further intensifying this new spirit of cooperation.
“World War One started in the Balkans… Now we start our year with peace among all of us,” said Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Vjekoslav Bevanda called for intensified cooperation, quoting a folk saying that “the ship will not go forward if everyone is rowing for themselves.”
And, looking forward to a future of increasing international investment and prosperity in the region, Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said: “We pray for a steady high tide which will raise all the boats and, at the end of the day, keep even the small boats afloat and everyone happy.”