The adoption of the EU-Western Balkan Action Plan in science and technology in 2003 was partly a reflection of the priority given to initiatives in the region by the incumbent Greek Presidency - at that time the Western Balkan's sole EU representative. Other Member States- notably Austria and Slovenia - have also played a leading role in promoting scientific cooperation with the Western Balkans, and it was these three countries that helped to organise a conference at the European Parliament on 3 February to examine Western Balkan participation in the EU research framework programmes. Addressing the assembled policy makers, the EU's Science and Research Commissioner, Janez Potocnik, emphasised the wider political context of scientific collaboration with the region. 'Enlargement of the EU shouldn't end with Romania and Bulgaria - other countries should be brought in too. [...] Scientific cooperation within the framework programmes and elsewhere is a means of consolidating lasting peace and prosperity in the Western Balkan countries,' he said. Mr Potocnik pointed out that specific calls for proposals under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) have already been launched to address challenges in the region, and that such activities could receive more financing in the future. 'There is a need for strong research institutions and trained researchers in the Western Balkans. Therefore, the Commission has decided to support the most promising scientific institutes in the area, with the aim of assisting in the establishment of regional networks,' he added. On the key question of these countries' participation in the next framework programme, the Commissioner offered this message: 'FP7 is about to be discussed, so now is the perfect time to define a more targeted approach to future cooperation. [...] In my opinion, the political will and commitment exist, and I give my personal commitment that the Commission will explore all necessary means to meet our common goals. I am eager to see your concrete proposals for further integrating the Western Balkans into the European Research Area [ERA]' One such concrete proposal came from a Member State representative at the conference, Manfred Horvat from the Austrian research promotion agency. 'Western Balkan participation in FP6 was challenging, but a valuable learning experience, and there was a satisfactory participation rate under the INCO [international cooperation] section. [...] INCO will be an extremely important part of FP7 too, but [I] think that the Western Balkans should have a dedicated section,' he argued. Mr Horvat emphasised the advantages for the present EU Member States in such a course of action: 'We are not talking about aid activities, we are talking about activities of joint interest. There are some great scientific human resources in these countries and they should be integrated into the ERA for the benefit of all.' Ministerial representatives from each country in the Western Balkans were present at the meeting to give their perspective on scientific collaboration with the EU. Slobodanka Koprivica, the Deputy Minister of Education and Science of Montenegro (Serbia and Montenegro), told CORDIS News: 'Our participation in FP6 is currently quite low and mainly symbolic, but we have made the first steps to improving the situation through participation in the Southeast Europe (SEE) ERA-Net scheme and with the establishment of national contact points.' Ms Koprivica lent her full backing to a position paper prepared by the SEE-ERA-Net project on Western Balkan participation in FP7, which calls for the inclusion of specific support actions for these countries, increases in financing for such measures, and the complementary use of other EU instruments besides the framework programmes to improve the research capacity of the region. Croatia's GDP per capita is at least double that of most of the other former Yugoslav republics, and has a relatively well advanced science base to match. The country's Assistant Minister for international cooperation, Radovan Fuchs, told CORDIS News: 'Our national priority is to join the EU, and the first step is to sign an S&T [science and technology] agreement and join FP6. Scientific cooperation is a normal condition - there are no regional or national borders to research.' Dr Fuchs pointed out that Croatia can play a key role in building scientific capacity in the Western Balkans as a whole: 'There are some quite big differences in the scientific activities of the various countries, and Croatia can act as a bridge between the EU and Southeast Europe, as we can understand the culture and language. We would like to play a role in developing the capacity of the region.' Some of the major research challenges facing several countries in the region were highlighted by Professor Lamija Tanovic from the University of Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina. 'The scientific sector in the Western Balkans are trying very hard to convince decision makers to make science and technology a priority, but it is difficult, as there are so many prior priorities S&T can seem like a luxury.' The Balkans conflict also caused many of the best scientific minds to leave the region, and at present there are too few incentives to convince them to return, she added. Aleksandar Popovic from the Serbian Ministry of Science and Environmental Protection (Serbia and Montenegro) also listed a lack of modern equipment, inadequate electronic infrastructure, poor national peer review processes and a lack of international mobility as other limiting factors to research in the Western Balkan countries. One of the final comments was left to Belgian MEP Philippe Busquin, who many people at the meeting credited with advancing EU-Western Balkan cooperation during his time as EU Research Commissioner. 'It is very interesting to get such a view of the progress that has been achieved in the last 3 years,' he said. 'The scientific community are pioneers when it comes to integration. Under FP5, the former candidate countries used the programme to effectively promote integration, and I hope that the same can be true of the Western Balkans under FP7.'
Albania, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Croatia, Slovenia