Balkan nations refresh proposal for regional free trade zone

Balkan nations meeting in Thessaloniki yesterday said a proposed regional free trade zone would boost their economies and help their aspirations to join the European Union. Under the plan, a Central European Free Trade Area will replace dozens of bilateral trade agreements between countries of the region, once known as Europe’s powder keg. «The aim is financial development,» Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis told a news conference after chairing the regional foreign ministers’ meeting. «Only the overall development of Southeast European countries will lead to all these countries at some point becoming members of the European Union, to which we believe they belong.» The plan for the free trade zone was approved by the countries involved during a meeting in Romania last month and is supported by the European Union. Yet details of when and how it would operate are scarce. Trade between the region’s countries – Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Romania, Serbia, Turkey and Moldova – rose 33 percent between 2001 and 2004 to 3.5 billion euros, according to official figures. Bakoyannis said the free trade zone, only between non-EU members, would act as a stepping stone for EU membership, allowing the countries to boost trade and revenues as they prepare to join the bloc. Currently the only country in the region to have joined the EU is Greece, which is eager to push its neighbors to start accession talks to promote stability after the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Bulgaria and Romania are set to join next year, while several others have started initial talks on future membership. Annual per capita GDP in most Balkan countries is a fraction of the eurozone average. EU average 2005 per capita GDP stood at $28,100. In comparison, Moldova’s was only $1,800 and Albania’s $4,500 for the year 2003. Bakoyannis acknowledged that several outstanding problems in the area needed to be resolved first – including the final status of Kosovo. (Reuters)