Regional Cooperation in South-Eastern Europe the Italian Perspective


Simona MAMELI *


Italy supports the value of a regional approach to find solutions for common problems, as a necessary perspective aimed at promoting the stabilization and the development in South-Eastern Europe. To this end, Italy contributed to launch some important Regional Initiatives of SEE. Conceiving the idea that common problems require common solutions, Italian foreign policy has also fostered the establishment of more or less institutionalised forms of collaboration among different Regional Initiatives. Within the Central European Initiative, Italy promotes the strategic policy of coordination among SEE RROO, particularly between CEI and BSEC. Although the path is hard and long, and notwithstanding a temporary stalemate due to a re-thinking of scopes and future of many of the SEE regional actors, the steps towards the creation of a closer relationship among them has demonstrated encouraging signals so far.

Roots of Regional Cooperation in South-Eastern Europe

During the ‘90s the international public opinions have been induced to associate the SEE region to a land of ancestral nationalisms, of deep hatred and grudge among States. However, the events related with the wars of former Yugoslavia should be more properly set within a specific parenthesis in respect to a more general process which has induced the SEE Countries to establish a regional dialogue since long time. SEE Countries firstly bound themselves in agreements of military alliance, and, in a following phase, in cooperation pacts aimed at the development, the democratisation and the improvement of standards of life for SEE people. (1)

The regional dialogue in SEE already started after the First World War, although still limited to military topics and collective defence, (2) while the birth of a real and broad “regional cooperation” could be dated back at 1988. This cooperation differed substantially from the former, since it was aimed at the development of the SEE region as a whole, the improvement of standards of living for people, the democratization of institutions. In February 1988, although the Cold War was not over yet, the winds of change of the 80’s had already run through the region, inducing SEE Countries to strategic rapprochement: the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Turkey and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), each one with a peculiar background, met for the first time in Belgrade to start a process of confrontation and regional collaboration in different fields, from economy, to commerce, to industry, to transport, up till humanitarian and cultural issues . (3)

During the last 80’s and the first ‘90s, while the outbreak of wars in the former Yugoslavia prevented the organisation of regional meetings among SEE Countries only, nonetheless some of the most important multilateral Initiatives of regional cooperation in SEE were launched in this period, including, beside SEE Countries, a larger number of different actors: from the Central European Initiative (CEI), to the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), to the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) . (4) A second group of Initiatives were created after the end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, primarily targeted to the SEE region: from the Conference on Good Neighbourliness, Stability, Security and Cooperation in SEE (CSEE), to the Royaumont Process, from the South-East European Cooperation Process (SEECP) to the Southeast Cooperative Initiative (SECI), from the UE Regional Approach to the Stability Pact of South-Eastern Europe, to the Adriatic-Ionian Initiative (AII).

Cooperation among SEE Countries was therefore extended to the fields of peace, stabilisation, security, economic development and environmental protection, infrastructures and transport, promotion of humanitarian, social, cultural and inter-University cooperation, as well as in fighting against organised crime, terrorism, illegal traffics of drugs, weapons and human beings.

The importance of Regional Cooperation in SEE

It can be argued that SEE Regional cooperation Initiatives were launched in response to four main concerns: the stabilisation of the region, the economical development, the need to give global answers to global problems and the perspective of a closer approach to the European Union . (5)

The first argument deals with the need of political and economical stabilisation for the region as a whole in order to avoid regional security problems such as those emerged during the wars in former Yugoslavia, which had showed a strong destabilizing and devastating potential. The ground idea is that regional stabilisation could be achieved only through dialogue and inter-state collaboration in different fields, as a spill-over of the deepening of relationships among Countries. The regional stabilisation is not only a value in itself, but it can also create a conducive environment for attracting foreign investments, a fundamental resource for Countries where savings and internal investments are endemically low because of poverty, lack of capitals and little confidence . (6)

From an economical point of view, the inter-regional dialogue can positively affect the liberalisation of trade, too, while the increasing of intra-regional trade can give a positive impulse to the economical growth of SEE Countries . (7)

On the other hand, it can be argued that in order to solve common problems, from fighting against organised crime to the environmental protection, common solutions are necessary. And to be effective and permanent, those solutions have necessarily to be concerted among States.

Regional cooperation is also the best solution when the creation of a public good requires disproportionately high resources for a single Country, since the benefits are enjoyable for all the States in the region. This occurs whenever public infrastructures having a regional impact have to be built, or when a single State has to create effective policies aimed at facing, for instance, environmental pollution or energy supply.

A further argument for regional cooperation is the perspective of a closer relationship with the European Union, with its economical instruments aimed at strengthening and stabilising young democracies. However, EU policies in the region has been, to a certain extent, quite contradictory: the bilateral nature of the relationships among the EU and SEE Countries, indeed, could appear somewhat inconsistent with the aim of promoting the regional integration of SEE . (8) Nevertheless, the EU has always been underlying the importance of regional cooperation in SEE. Indeed, the Stabilisation and Association Process, which offers a favourable framework of reference to quicken reforms in the Balkans, places a great emphasis on regional cooperation among Countries . (9)

Italy and the Initiatives of Regional Cooperation in SEE

The Italian Foreign Policy has always fostered the strengthening of SEE democracies and their process of transition towards a stable and functioning economy market. The Italian interest in SEE region derives from the geographical, historical and cultural proximity, from the trans-Adriatic economical and political relationship, from the common interest to fight against organised crime and illegal traffics. Besides the security and political concerns, the SEE region also constitutes an area of rooted economical Italian presence, as far as investments and trade are concerned.

For all these reasons, Italy promotes a lasting and stable political co-operation with the SEE Countries, not only at bi-lateral level but also in a multi-lateral and regional dimension. Particularly, Italy fosters the regional dialogue among SEE Countries within several forums of regional cooperation, utterly convinced that only the deepening of relationships and the strengthening of cooperation among SEE States can cement the stability of the region as a whole, and grant it prosperity and development.

With this aim, Italy has promoted the institution of some important SEE Initiatives of regional cooperation, such as the CEI (10) and the AII (11), intended to create an area of peace, security and stability in SEE. Italy also plays an active role in other SEE regional forums, such as the Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe, and attends as an observer in others, such as the SECI or the BSEC. Moreover, in the strong belief that global problems require global solutions, the Italian foreign policy has promoted the creation of synergies and a stable dialogue among the several SEE Regional Initiatives and Organisations. The basic idea is that these Initiatives, acting in similar or even identical fields, but each one relying on a different and distinctive expertise, could further improve their accomplishments by sharing ideas and best practices. According to this perspective, SEE RRII should also promote coordinated policies to better face a common problem.

With this aim, Italy has fostered a policy of mutual approach among SEE RRII, acting especially within the CEI framework, where it plays a leading role. During the last years, strong contacts has been established between the CEI-University Network and AII-UniAdrion, for instance.

Italy has also patronized the establishment of a table of collaboration between CEI and AII from one side and the Council of the Baltic Sea States (CBSS) and the Euro Artic Council of Barents (EACB) from the other. This initiative, launched in 2004, has lead the four RROO to meet together several times in order to discuss topics of common interest and concern, such as environmental protection, scientific, technological and inter-university cooperation and fighting against organised crime. This proposal was succesfull, and also the BSEC jointed the initiative . (12)

Given the several fields of common interest and the benefits that could come both from a systematic exercise of mutual information on activities and from a concrete cooperation on different topics, several times Italy has underlined the importance of forms of collaboration and dialogue among different SEE RROO and RRII. In this sense, the Italian Foreign Policy guidelines consider the perspective of a closer approach and a stronger dialogue between CEI and BSEC particularly worthwhile, given the relevance of both the organisations within the respective geographical context and also for the structural similarity of them, which could facilitate the establishment of a well organised cooperation.

The CEI and the BSEC have six common members (Albania, Bulgaria, Moldova, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine) and share a significant number of priorities working areas, such as agriculture, fight against organised crime, culture, education, energy, environmental protection, science and technology, Small and Medium Enterprises, tourism and transport. Both CEI and BSEC have provided themselves with permanent secretariats, working groups, governing bodies, parliamentary and business dimensions as well as bank structures. They both aim at creating an area of peace, stability and development from Adriatic to Caucasus, promoting the dialogue among Countries, the economical development, the strengthening of democracy and the deepening of the relationship with the European Union. These purposes are shared by both the foreign policy guidelines of Italy (13) and Turkey . (14)

On the other hand, the establishment and the strengthening of an area of development, peace and prosperity is a common goal not only for SEE Countries but also for Europe as a whole. Indeed, CEI and BSEC delimit a geographical area of paramount importance not only because crossroads of business traffics, from trade to energetic supply, where a number of crucial infra-structural projects are supposed to be realised, such as the Multi-Modal Pan-European Corridors V and VIII; this region also includes several areas exposed to potential destabilisation and, therefore, of particular concern for EU and the International Community. The CEI and the BSEC might play an important role to settle controversial issues among States, since they are privileged tables of dialogue and confrontation, where Countries might set their problems in a regional perspective.

Moreover, the contextual presence in both CEI and BSEC of UE member States, potential candidate Countries and Countries without any clear perspective of joining the EU, make these RROO able to foster both the approach of potential candidate Countries to EU and the deepening of the relationship between EU and Countries of its Neighbourhood Policy. This differentiated composition of member Countries leads RROO to a closer relationship with the European Union, fostering the harmonisation of regional and national policies to EU standards and promoting the adoption of the EU best practices. The CEI and the BSEC can preserve their crucial role in reference to the EU enlargement, too. Indeed, both within CEI and BSEC, Countries cooperate in fields not yet involved in the communitarian process.

Overview of CEI-BSEC Relationship (15)

The cooperation between the CEI and the BSEC dates back to 1997, in the framework of a more general strategy of coordination among several RROO launched within the CEI. In April 1997, a first initiation meeting was held in Trieste: representatives of CEI, CBSS and BSEC met together to mutually exchange information and to analyse the possibility of cooperation, particularly in the fields of transport, trade, fight against organised crime and contribution to civic security.

A first Coordination Meeting among representative of CEI-Executive Secretariat (CEI-ES), United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), SECI and BSEC was organised in December 1997 in Istanbul, while a second Meeting took place in Vienna the following year. These forums brought the representatives of Regional Initiatives to analyse the possibility to establish forms of permanent cooperation and coordination among them on a regular basis, in order to avoid the overlapping of actions and to jointly face common issues of concern. Indeed, the creation of synergies was supposed to provide effective responses to common problems, and then to easily achieve the joint goals of peace and development. However, the creation of an effective coordination required the arrangement of a concrete work programme, which was impossible to arrange neither in these first meetings nor later. In 2000 and in 2001 the contacts among the SEE Initiatives were reduced to sporadic meetings, and the expected establishment of effective coordination remained in a state of limbo.

Only in 2002 the cooperation among SEE RRII gained a new momentum, when some coordination meetings were held under the umbrella of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe. These events enabled the different regional actors to discuss the opportunity of re-launching stronger coordination among them, with the aim of avoiding overlapping and duplications in concrete activities. Eventually, the SEE RROO were able to concretely analyse perspectives of interaction and a possible division of labour.

A first Coordination Meeting was held in Vienna in April 2002; a second meeting was organised in Istanbul the following September. In the latter, the representatives of CEI-ES met their counterparts of the Permanent International Secretariat of the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC PERMIS) in view of examining possible coordination of their activities and to explore the opportunities of cooperation in project preparation. The two Secretariats agreed on the idea of focus on their members in common to launch some pilot projects. As a first step, the organisation charts and the division of tasks among the staff members of the Secretariats were mutually exchanged, while the reciprocal participation in meetings of the respective expert bodies was strongly supported. They analysed the possibility to develop and implement projects of common interest in the fields of energy, micro-financing systems oriented at the facilitation of credit for rural areas, agricultural wholesale markets, business advisory services, transport.

The representatives of CEI-ES and BSEC-PERMIS also agreed to encourage the establishment of regular contacts between the parliamentary and business dimensions of both the Organisations. From a broader perspective, Vienna and Istanbul meetings consolidated the willingness of the different SEE Regional Initiatives, and not only of CEI and BSEC, to deepen the reciprocal dialogue to establish effective cooperation in several fields . (16)

During 2003, CEI and BSEC established stronger contacts, particularly in the field of tourism. The BSEC representatives attended the Venice Meeting of the CEI Working Group on Tourism, held in June, while the CEI representatives participated in the BSEC International Conference on “Tourism Opportunities in the BSEC Region” held in Baku the following September. In 2003 a third Coordination Meeting was held in Trieste, too.

In October 2003, in Ljubljana, and in July 2004, in Trieste, the last Coordination Meeting among SEE RROO were held. The willingness of regional actors were confirmed: the coordination in scheduling the events, the regular exchange of information on relevant events and activities, the mutual participation in summit political meetings and meeting of experts . (17)

Nevertheless, the gap between verbal commitment and practical implementation has remained unsolved. So far, the prefixed target of launching joint projects among SEE Regional actors has not found practical application, although several fields of potential cooperation had already been identified, especially between CEI and BSEC.

Since 2004, Coordination Meetings among RROO have no longer been held. Since no decreasing in interest for coordination among Regional Initiatives occurred, this outward stalemate in the organisation of coordination meeting has to be traced back to the big geo-political changes that involved the region after the European Union enlargements of 2004 and 2007.

The EU enlargement has lead several SEE Regional Initiatives to reconsider their original aims and rethink their perspectives for future. Therefore, many regional actors has started a phase of inner reflection on their own identity and function, leaving no room for those ambitious initiatives of stronger coordination among SEE Regional Initiatives. (18) So far, this parochialism has thus negatively affected the wide ranging strategies discussed during the several Coordination Meetings among SEE RROO.

Nevertheless, given the strong willingness showed, particularly from CEI and BSEC, it could be argued that the former practice of coordination meeting will be probably re-launched as soon as SEE regional actors will conclude the reflection on their identity, aims and future perspectives.

The coordination among RROO, therefore, will be soon re-launched. It could be possible, too, that some of them will merge to improve their effectiveness.


Even though the hypothesis of a deepening of cooperation among SEE Initiatives has been temporary shelved, waiting for a definition of identities and aims of regional actors, nevertheless CEI and BSEC representatives have went on meeting each other, with the aim of preserve the original impulse to strengthen their relationship . (19)

Under the auspices of the Italian Foreign Policy guidelines, the deepening of cooperation among SEE Regional Initiatives has to be strongly foster in order to promote the development and the stabilisation of the South-Eastern Europe. Maybe it will be possible already at the end 2007, when the Council for Regional Cooperation, designated successor of the Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe, is supposed to be created. In this sense, the willingness of SEE Countries to take up their responsibilities for the development of the region has to be favourably welcome.

* Researcher at Institute for East-Central Europe and Balkans, (Istituto per l’Europa Centro Orientale e Balcanica), attached to the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs - Directorate General for European Countries as a consultant. She works at the MFA - National Coordination Centre for Regional Initiatives in South-Eastern Europe, assisting the Italian National Coordinator for CEI, AII and Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe.

(1) Stefano Bianchini, Sarajevo, le radici dell’odio. Identità e destino dei popoli balcanici, Edizioni Associate-Editrice Internazionale, Roma, 2003; Levent Bilman, “The Regional Cooperation Initiatives in Southeast Europe and the Turkish Foreign Policy”, in Perceptions – Journal of International Affairs, Vol. III – N. 3, September-November 1998; Krassen Stanchev, Interdependencies and Cooperation in South East Europe, in Domenico Mario Nuti and Milica Uvalic (editeb by), “Post-Communist Transition to a Market Economy. Lessons and Challenges”, Ed. Longo Ravenna, 2003.

(2) From the “Little Entente”, considered the first example of system of alliances in the Balkans-Danubian area after the First World War, to the “Balkan Pact” among Greece, Romany, Turkey and Yugoslavia during the 30’s, still aimed at defending the territorial status quo against possible revisionist Countries, up to the signing of the “Second Balkan Pact” in 1954, in the middle of the Cold War. See Stefano Bianchini, op. cit. and Levent Bilman, op. cit. Levent Bilman, op. cit.

(3) Levent Bilman, op. cit.

(4) Milica Uvalic, Regional Cooperation in Southeastern Europe in “Southeast Europe and the Black Sea Studies”, Vol.1, N. 1, Summer 2000.

(5) Milica Uvalic, op. cit.

(6) Ibidem.

(7) The regional dialogue has lead SEE Countries to move important steps towards the establishment of a “South European Free Trade Area”, although it remains still far from being achieved. The signing of Free Trade Agreements among several SEE Countries and the consequent removal of commercial barriers have contributed to the growth of intra-regional trade. Nevertheless, it remains below its real potential, also because non-tariff barriers have not been removed. Cfr. Stefano Bianchini, Joseph Marko, R. Craig Nation, Francesco Privitera, Milica Uvalic, “Regional Cooperation, Peace Enforcement and the Role of the Treaties in the Balkans – Concluding Remarks of the Forlì International Conference – January 20th –21st , 2006, Forlì, Italy”, Istituto per l’Europa Centro-Orientale e Balcanica, Europe and the Balkans International Network, UniGraz, 2006.

(8) Ibidem. As far as the Stability Pact for South East Europe is concerned, see also: Stefano Bianchini, Le strategie dell’Italia verso Est. Alla ricerca di un ruolo fra politiche regionali e integrazione europea, in Stefano Bianchini e Marta Dassù (edited by), “Guida ai Paesi dell’Europa centrale orientale e balcanica – Annuario politico-economico 2001”, Ed. Il Mulino, 2001.

(9) Stefano Bianchini, Joseph Marko, R. Craig Nation, Francesco Privitera, Milica Uvalic, op. cit. See also the Stabilisation and Association Agreements concluded by the EU so far, Title I, “General Principles”: “International and regional peace and stability and the development of good neighbourly relations are central to the Stabilisation and Association Process (…)”. Currently the ASA in force are ASA-Croatia and ASA-FYROM; ASA-Albania is under ratification.

(10) The Central European Initiative was founded in November 1989 by Italy, Austria, Yugoslavia and Hungary. It has gradually extended its scope and its composition: while originally aimed at promoting the dialogue among four different regimes to foster regional stability and the economic reconstruction, currently the Initiative counts 18 members and it articulates its activities on 16 different working groups. CEI most important objectives are: A) Strengthening the co-operation among and between member States; B) Supporting new EU members in their process of economic, social and legislative reforms towards EU standards; C) Promoting infra-structural integrated projects.

(11) The Adriatic and Ionian Initiative (IAI) was launched in 2000 by Italy, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece and Slovenia. Originally aimed at jointly fighting against illegal immigration and organised criminality, gradually AII fields of action have expanded.

(12) The establishment of a table of cooperation among CBSS, EABC, CEI and AII became a concrete reality in 2005. The recent Conference on "Extended Chairmen's Meeting of Regional Organisations/Councils and Initiatives in Europe" held in November 2006 in Malmö, where several other European Regional Organization were invited, has showed the willingness of RROO to establish a closer cooperation among them, confirming the success of the Italian proposal.

(13) This political orientation has been recently confirmed by the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. Massimo D’Alema during the International Conference “La prospettiva europea per i Balcani Occidentali. Il ruolo dell’Italia”, organised by the Italian MFA in Rome, 16th January 2007.

(14) As already pointed out by the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. Abdullah Gül in “Bsec will serve as an example of regional cooperation”, Black Sea Trend Review, Vol. II, N. 6, Winter 2004.

(15) Sources: CEI-Executive Secretariat; Italian MFA - National Coordination Centre for Regional Initiatives in South-Eastern Europe.

(16) The RROO agreed on the need for better coordinating the schedules of upcoming events and for avoiding overlapping of activities and proliferation of meetings; they also agreed on the advisability of contributing to joint projects and each Organisation identified a focal point to facilitate the exchange of information. Moreover, RROO discussed the possibility of strengthening respective contacts and analysed the opportunity of projects in several fields: agriculture, energy, fight against organised crime and terrorism, trade and business promotion.

(17) In July 2004, particularly, the BSEC representatives expressed their interest to cooperate with the other regional actors in the fields of agriculture, energy, fight against organised crime and development of Small and Medium Enterprises, hoping the secretariats of the different RROO could improve their contacts in this direction.

(18) In November 2006, during the Summit of the Heads of Government of member States Italy proposed to revitalise the CEI, coherently to the geo-political changes occurred in the region after the EU enlargement of 2004, to reassess aims and activities and to analyse opportunities and future perspectives of the Initiative. Similarly, the “Quadrilaterale Initiative”, fostered by Italy in 1996 with the aim of supporting the approach of Slovenia, Hungary and later Croatia to EU, as a consequence of the 2004 enlargement and the signing of ASA-Croatia had to re-think its aims. As far as the Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe is concerned, it is going to be soon replaced by a regional organism, the Council for Regional Cooperation. The CRC will be composed by SEE Countries only. The Stability Pact is supposed to be dissolved by the end of 2007.

(19) In 2006 CEI and BSEC representatives discussed once more the possibility of joint projects.