Due to its political, geographic, and cultural similarities, Italy’s political relations with the Western Balkan countries represent a strategic priority of the Italian foreign policy.
The development of events in a region close to the Adriatic sea has immediate backdrops both on the internal security and on the external relations of our country.
The strengthening of institutionsin the Western Balkans countries and their progressive integration in the EU are pivotal for the consolidation of peace, democracy and stability in the Old Continent. The Western Balkans are a political and economic priority for Italy -considering the traditional projection of our country towards the Adriatic-Ionian area - with the strategic goal of their full integration in the European and Euro-Atlantic security structures.
After the crisis in the 90s, we are now fully engaged to support the consolidation of democratic institutions and the final transition to free-market economies. The achievement of a balance in the region constitutes a strategic element of a broader pattern leading to an overall stabilization of our continent. In this framework, Italy supports the strengthening of regional cooperation as a priority. In addition to the revitalization of the already existing fora (the Adriatic Ionian Initiative and the Central European Initiative), On november 2014 Italy was leader in launching, in Brussels, the EU Strategy for the Adriatic - Ionian Region, during the Italian Presidency Semester of the EU Council and is working to the launch of a new EU Strategy for the Alpine Region.
In recent years, developments in the euro-Atlantic path of Western Balkan countries have been extremely positive and encouraging. Within the EU, we have assisted to the accession of Croatia in 2013, while Montenegro started accession negotiations with the EU in 2012, and Serbia in 2013. In June 2014, Albania moved ahead towards the EU with the recognition of the candidate status to the EU membership. The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was already recognized with the candidate status in 2005 and Bosnia and Herzegovina signed an Association Agreement and association with the EU in 2008. Kosovo, meanwhile, is moving closer to the “Stabilization and Association Agreement” with the EU. It is also worth to stress the joining of Albania and Croatia to NATO in 2009. Italy aims that these paths can be completed as soon as possible, as the full integration of the Western Balkan countries will contribute to the construction of a more cohesive and stronger Europe on the international scene.
In the short term, regional stabilization, economic recovery, consolidation of democracy and fight against organized crime are – in our view - the main objectives to be achieved in the Western Balkans.
This is shown by the intensity of the bilateral relations between Italy and the countries of the area, including, more recently: the signing of a strategic intergovernmental cooperation agreement with Montenegro, the Committees of Ministers with Croatia and Slovenia (including the Trilateral Summits with the latter two in 2013),the consolidation of the strategic partnerships with Serbia and Albania, as well as the trilateral dialogue with these two countries started in 2015.
The strategic importance of this region for our foreign policy is reflected in its inclusion among the priorities of the Italian Presidency Semester of the EU Council. This was also confirmed by the official visits of the Hon. Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation in the six countries of the Western Balkans (Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina) on 25-28 July 2014.
Italy actively supports the process of security and stabilization in the region, not only through intense bilateral political dialogues and fruitful cooperation in many areas, but also through an effective international action in partnership with other countries, as demonstrated at EU level as well as by the Italian participation in the group of informal dialogue on the Balkans "QUINT", along with the United States, Britain, France and Germany. The main goal is to make the progresses made so far irreversible and to encourage the European path of all countries, keeping the Western Balkans as a key priority for the international community.
Italy isone of the main economic partners of the region, in terms of foreign trade and investments. The overall exchange in 2013 amounted to 16 billion 552 million euro.
Italy is the first trading partner of Serbia, Croatia, and Albania. It is also the first importer country in Kosovo and second importer and exporter country in Slovenia.
Both the volume of investment and the number of Italian companies in the area are extremely high. In Serbia, in particular, Italy is the first investor country with about 500 companies (both small and medium-sized and large companies) which have relocated their production there; while in Albania Italy is in first place for the number of companies (400). In Slovenia, Italy is in third place among the investor countries.
The main areas of investments of large Italian companies are: textiles (Benetton in Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia), footwear (Geox in Serbia), cars (FIAT in Serbia), energy production (Terna and A2A in Montenegro; Eni and Edison in Croatia), and distribution (Conad in Kosovo, Eurospin and Autogrill in Slovenia, Oviesse in Croatia and Slovenia).
The presence of major Italian banks with direct investments or through control of subsidiaries is extremely significantfor the support offurther Italian investments:Unicredit in Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina; IntesaSanpaolo in Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina; Generali in Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia; Fonsai in Serbia.
Also the wide diffusion of the Italian language in the Western Balkans area is a key factor boosting the economic ties. This is enhanced by the strong cultural attraction of our country, as well as by specific language programs for the promotion of Italian language carried out by the Italian Government, funding both on-site language courses courses and scholarships.
Italy contributes to the regional stabilization and security with a strong military presence as well as with an increasing number of civilian components as part of international missions operating in the Western Balkans.
In Kosovo, the Italian military presence is noticeable. In 2014 Italy was the third largest contributor to the NATO KFOR Mission with about 600 units average on the field. Since September 2013 Italy also holds the position of Mission Commander (COMKFOR). This mission is indeed under the command of the Division General Francesco Paolo Figliuolo from September 2014. Thanks to the work done by KFOR, the situation on the ground in Kosovo has improved, with a reduction of violence, even if it not yet possible to consider the possibility of a workforce reduction on the field. The role of KFOR is also important from a political point of view, as the NATO is favorably considered, both by Pristina and Belgrade, as guarantor of security, discouraging possible phenomena of violence, and contributing to the agreements implementation between Belgrade and Pristina in the spring of 2013 (and facilitated by the EU).
The Italian commitment is also relevant in the EU. Italy, with about 36 units, is a major contributor of the European mission EULEX Kosovo, started on 16 February 2008 and extended until June 2016. EULEX is structured in three components of Police, Justice and Customs. It remains the most imposing civilian CSDP mission even after the reduction of staff resulting from the strategic review of spring 2014. From 15 October 2014, the Command of the Mission was entrusted to the Italian diplomat Amb. Gabriele Meucci. Italian officials held senior positions also in the past, including the position of Chief Justice (Cons. Silvio Bonfigli) and Chairman of the Judges Assemblee (Dr. Francesco Florit). Our country also contributes to the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), led by the Italian diplomat LambertoZannier until June 2011. Bosnia and Herzegovina hosts an Italian presence in the context of the military operation EUFOR Althea (former NATO's SFOR), which currently includes more than 900 units. On 11 November 2014, the United Nations passed a resolution authorizing the renewal of the mandate for a further year, following the UN Council conclusions of October 2014. In addition to the original function of security keeping in the area, since the end of 2010 EUFOR Althea also trains Bosnian armed forces. Italy also participated in the European Union Police Mission EUPM (whose deputy commander Colonel Paterna of the Carabinieri), launched in 2003 to contribute to the establishment of a professional and multiethnicpolice service.
In addition to this, Italy leads a successful cooperation with Albania in the defense sector. Since 1997 an "Italian delegation of experts" (DIE) assists the Albanian Armed Forces to achieve the standards required by the NATO. The delegation is composed of 27 Italian officers and trains the Albanian army on peace-keeping operations. The improvement of the Albanian operational capacities have allowed the gradual withdrawal of the Italian military presence in Albania, in particular the 28th Naval Group stationed in Vlora, which operated in the fight against illegal trafficking between the two shores of the Adriatic.
In the Western Balkans, Italy is also one of the most active countries in the sector of Development Cooperation, seen as a support for the process of economic transition and political democratisation in the region with the goal of encouraging stabilisation.
Italian Cooperation is focused in the sectors of infrastructure, energy, the environment, health, education, public administration, support for the private sector (SMEs in particular) and protection of cultural heritage.
Italian financing is provided by Law 49/87, and Law 180/1992; many projects have been facilitated by Law 84/2001 and Law 212/1992. Numerous other projects are financed by international bodies such as the UN, OSCE, the World Bank, EBRD and the EIB.
Many projects have also been started up thanks to the engagement of numerous Italian nongovernmental organisations. Bilateral agreements have also been signed in the sector of cultural cooperation for scholarships, inter-university cooperation, research programmes, projects and initiatives to create libraries, museums and cultural centres.
Italy pays close attention to the regional dimension of development activity, partly through active participation in the CEI (Central European Initiative) and the AII (Adriatic-Ionian Initiative). In that context, there is a particular need to coordinate Italian intervention with the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe.
Albania in the only priority country for the Italian Cooperation in the Balkans region, and Italy is one of most important international donors in Albania. In the last decade the Italian Cooperation allocated more than 300 million euros on grants and soft loans. The debt swap agreement, the first signed by Albania and a donor country, entered into force in December 2012, and it includes cooperation initiatives in the social development sector: especially education, health care and employment policies. For the 2014-2016 period the Italian Cooperation activities will follow the guidelines set up by the STREAM document and by the recently signed “Protocol for development cooperation between the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Albania and the Government of Italy 2014-2016”. The Italian Cooperation will focus on three priority sectors: private sector development (in which Italy is European Lead Donor), agriculture and rural development, and social development. On the contrary, although in the infrastructure sector the Italian Cooperation has started a disengagement process, there are lasting difficulties in ending cooperation projects in sectors such as environment, road construction and electricity. Albania has also been the object of the OCSE field visit in October 2013 within the framework of the Peer-Review OCSE-DAC 2013-2014, in which Italy was defined as “Strategic partner” for the development of Albania.
In the immediate aftermath of the floods that affected the Balkans during last May, Italy promptly intervened with a total multilateral emergency contribution of 300,000 Euros. The Italian support, channeled through the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), was divided into 200,000 Euros to Serbia and 100,000 Euros to Bosnia Herzegovina.
Italy also sent a humanitarian flight to Belgrade from the UN Logistics Depot in Brindisi. The humanitarian operation, in collaboration with WFP and OCHA, made 4 boats available for use by the rescue teams and included electrical generators and other equipment for a total value of about 170,000 euros. Together with WHO, Italy also made available 4 health kits from the humanitarian Depot in Brindisi to support first aid operations in Bosnia and Croatia, granting the release of 2 kits for each country. The health kits included essential medicines, supplies and equipment to cover the health needs of affected populations.
Moreover, following the Pledge of 2 million announced at the Paris Donors Conference held on the 16th of July , Italy recently approved two reconstruction programs: 1.2 million euros for Bosnia and 0.8 million euros for Serbia.
Finally, Italy is planning a bilateral initiative for a total amount of 200,000 euros, aiming at financing activities to be carried out in Bosnia in the mine action sector. Italian funds will help to continue Italian interventions carried out in this specific sector during the previous years by our Embassy in Sarajevo, in collaboration with the Italian NGO INTERSOS and the National Bosnia-Herzegovina Mine Action Center (BHMAC), in order to improve security conditions of mine-affected populations in the cantons of Sarajevo, BosanskoPodrinjskiGoradze and in Srebrenica municipality.