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  • Craiova Group – too late or better late than never?

    The proliferation of sub-regional cooperation in Europe is one of the facets of European integration that has gained momentum in recent times. But while alliances like the Visegrad Group (V4) and meetings such as the one held in September 2017 between Benelux, the Baltic states, and the Nordic states, increasingly gather media attention, Southeast Europe’s (SEE) Craiova Group remains largely unknown.

    The Craiova Group (C4) is an intergovernmental initiative that brings together four SEE countries – Bulgaria (BG), Greece (GR), Romania (RO) and Serbia (RS) – whose common priorities are to enhance connectivity and promote European integration in their region. The Group was inaugurated on 24 April 2015 in the Romanian city of Craiova on the initiative of the then Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta. It was envisaged as an informal sub-regional format originally composed of Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia. However, likely due to the political crisis in Romania, which led to the resignation of the format’s initiator, cooperation within the Craiova Group froze for two years after its second meeting on 16 June 2015.

    The Group managed to pick up momentum in October 2017 after Greece joined the format during a quadrilateral summit held in Varna, Bulgaria. Since then, the C4 held three other quadrilateral summits in Belgrade, Bucharest, and Thessaloniki and another round of four summits is expected to start in the last quarter of 2018 in Varna. In addition, the Craiova members cooperated on the margins of other formats, such as the China-CEEC (16+1) summit in Sofia, in which the four countries took part.

    Although the slow start of the Craiova Group barred it from developing a track record of realising its priorities, cooperation between the C4 is set to persist at least in the short-term. The upcoming annual round of quadrilateral summits is an example of a step taken by the format to reinforce the nascent partnership in the coming year. Joint action by the Craiova Group will also be facilitated by external circumstances which are favourable to the Group’s priorities. The approaching Romanian Presidency of the Council of the EU has pledged to keep Western Balkan (WB) enlargement on the EU agenda. On the other hand, there is an international interest to invest in SEE’s connectivity as evidenced by the Berlin Process, the China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the proposal for the next long-term EU budget for 2021-2027.

    The internally-driven summits and the momentum coming from outside are very likely to refine the stature of the Craiova Group. The question remains, however, whether the C4 is prepared to overcome its unconvincing start and capitalise on the current environment and opportunities to establish itself as a durable sub-regional cooperation format. Put simply is it too late or better late than never?

    To answer this question, the ensuing lines will present and elaborate on the priorities of the Craiova Group as well as the challenges ahead of the format.

    The Craiova Group’s Priorities: from Southeast Asia to Southeast Europe or the Acceptance of Development as a Norm

    “We are not the Visegrad Four, which set goals for common policies. No, we want infrastructure, digital infrastructure and ports in order to boost our economic growth.”

    These words of Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov portray the goals of the Craiova Group as limited in comparison to other sub-regional groups like the Visegrad Group. The narrow focus of the C4 on connectivity and European integration, however, is shaped by the legacy of the past. The Cold War in particular divided the C4 into three geopolitical camps – the Euro-Atlantic Bloc (Greece); the Non-alignment movement (Serbia, as part of Yugoslavia); and the Eastern Bloc (Bulgaria and Romania). Political animosity, on the one hand, meant that there would be for example no completed motorways connecting the Craiova countries in the aftermath of the fall of the Iron Curtain. On the other hand, the pursuit of different ideologies throughout the second half of the 20th century has also had a divergent impact on the four countries’ economies and level of integration within the EU. As a result, the Craiova bloc is more heterogeneous than formats like the Visegrad Group and Benelux, which have more interconnected economies and are equally integrated within the EU, allowing them to pursue more ambitious common goals.

    To address the heterogeneity between them, the Craiova countries seem to have settled on a developmental approach mimicking, to a big or small extent, the one pursued by states in Southeast Asia. As illustrated throughout the following lines, the C4 concentrate on transport and energy connectivity, sharing a common vision on European integration that stops where the enlargement of SEE ends.

    Connectivity

    The first major aim of the Craiova Group is to address existing infrastructural gaps and reinvent SEE as a transit corridor at the intersection of three continents, uniting efforts on several ambitious projects. Since their first meeting, the heads of the Craiova Group have advocated the construction of a ring of highways between Belgrade-Timisoara-Bucharest-Rousse-Sofia to which an extension from Sofia to Thessaloniki was added when Greece joined the C4 With regards to railway transport, there are three notable groups of projects. The first group concerns the modernisation of the railway between Belgrade and Sofia, which is part of Pan-European Corridor X that connects Central Europe with Istanbul. The second one is the Sea2Sea project which connects the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea and the Danube River through the construction of a high-speed railway that links three Greek ports (Thessaloniki, Kavala, Alexandroupolis) with three Bulgarian ports (Burgas, Varna on the Black Sea and Ruse on the Danube). The third group of projects discussed by the C4 states concern the Belgrade-Budapest high-speed railway which is to be extended from Belgrade to Piraeus in Greece. Lastly, the three gas interconnectors between Bulgaria and Greece, Serbia and Romania, which are respectively auctioned, at the memorandum stage and already constructed, are discussed as infrastructure which could enable the functioning of the “Balkan” gas hub that is to be located in Varna, Bulgaria.  The ensemble of the projects, therefore, bridges infrastructural gaps between the Craiova Group but also those missing between Southeast Europe and the neighbouring regions.

    European Integration

    Although the Craiova Group has expanded its actions in relation to European integration, the bloc focuses on the promotion of the SEE accession to the EU, to the detriment of defending a normative vision on European integration or an elaborate set of policies.

    In comparison to other sub-regional groupings, the leaders of the Craiova format do not share a common vision of European integration. What is more, besides the usage of ‘return to Europe’ rhetoric and a tendency to stress the importance of regional cooperation, the heads of the Craiova Group avoid normative statements. Neither issues like the rule of law and media freedom, which are EU fundamental values, nor value-loaded subjects such as the refugee crisis or EU-Russia relations, have been raised throughout the multilateral conferences of the Group. The explanation behind the normative silence of the Group, however, is not limited to the members’ inequal integration within the EU. The Craiova governments are likely circumventing such rhetoric to avoid criticism on their questionable records in domains like the rule of law; as well as friction with EU actors, on which they are dependent on matters stemming from EU and Schengen accession to financial assistance.

    In terms of influencing decision-making, the Group does not so far intend to influence decision-making at the EU level despite having a total population of around 45 million, which would constitute a significant weight within the Council of the EU.  The accession of Serbia to the EU is not the only impediment to this. There are significant structural differences between the economies of Romania and Bulgaria and Greece that often result in interest divergence within the Council which is set to persist even as Serbia joins the EU. Thus, even fully integrated to the EU, the Group is not going to be cohesive at least in economic areas, which limits its cooperation to other fields such as defence. The conduction of a joint military exercise between the Craiova countries in Greece this summer is perhaps a case in point.

    The narrow focus of the Group in relation to European integration is hence limited to the advancement of SEE accession to the EU. Bulgaria has promoted WB enlargement throughout its Presidency of the Council, an action that is going to be mimicked by Romania as of January 2019 and actively supported by Greece as an EU member state.

    How pragmatic is the Craiova Group’s pragmatism?

    Contrary to the words of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who dubbed the Craiova Group “an institution with a great influence in the Balkan region”, the quadrilateral format and its limited has serious misgivings to address if it wants to persist in time.

    Firstly, in its literal sense, the word “institution”, used by Tsipras, so far has little to do with the Craiova Group, whose level of institutionalisation remains largely non-existent in comparison to other sub-regional formats like the Benelux, Nordic Council and the Visegrad Group. This leads to an absence of any autonomous administrative capacity of the Group which leaves it vulnerable to sudden governmental changes. The two-year freeze of cooperation after the Romanian PM Ponta left office is a likely illustrative case. Moreover, the current momentum of the C4 is dependent on favourable external circumstances like the Bulgarian and Romanian Presidencies of the Council of the EU, the China-CEEC format or the new MFF, which are of temporary nature. In this context, the Group needs to consider measures like creating an annual presidency; parliamentary friendship groups; and a website that publishes program declarations, annual reports and summit meeting. These measures are not costly and have proven effective in other Groups that follow an intergovernmental approach like the V4.

    Secondly, the Group does not have a systematised connectivity agenda. Beyond summit rhetoric, infrastructural projects like the ring of motorways are far from complete and while the most advanced sections between Belgrade-Sofia and Sofia-Thessaloniki are undergoing construction, others like Belgrade-Timisoara have not passed the memorandum stage. The absence of synergy between the Group is also evidenced by the fact that projects like the Belgrade-Sofia railway, Sea2Sea and the southward extension of the Belgrade-Budapest railway, which connect SEE with wider Europe, Asia and the Middle East have not been considered together. All of this could contribute to fragmented infrastructure in the region and decrease the overall attractiveness of the various projects. In this respect, the quadrilateral format should also consider accepting Macedonia among its ranks due to its involvement in projects like the southward extension of the Belgrade-Budapest railway and an overall potential to connect infrastructural gaps between Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia.

    Thirdly, lack of a normative and policy-orientated stance limits the format’s aim to promote Southeast Europe as a transit region. In fact, C4’s disinterest in topics like rule of law reform impedes the transit potential of the region because it fundamentally relies on the removal of hard borders via accession to the EU and Schengen area, both of which are tied to good governance. Hence, rather than relying on derogation grants from the EC to have one border patrol for trucks between their borders, the ultimate interest of countries like Bulgaria and Serbia is to cooperate in the rule of law domain and streamline their European integration in order to have no borders between them.

    Lastly, in comparison to other groups like Benelux, which promotes itself as the innovation hub of European integration, or the V4, which builds on the historical role of Visegrad for Central European diplomacy, the Craiova Group does not have a common set of symbols. This precludes the format from an opportunity to distinguish itself and create an additional impetus for cooperation during the early stages of its development. Thus, the quadrilateral format should not hesitate to promote its own imagery, in which the Romanian city of Craiova is a city of conflict-mitigation, where long-lasting conflicts between Bulgaria and Romania, and Bulgaria and Serbia, then part of Yugoslavia, ended for good through the 1940 and 1944 Craiova treaties. Nowadays, Craiova could affirm this image if its leaders invite Macedonia to join the format, subject to the favourable outcome of the referendum with Greece. In practical terms, such representation of Craiova could serve to, at least partially, erase the image of the Balkans as a conflict-ridden region, making the unlocking of outside investment for expensive infrastructural projects more likely.

    Too late VS better late than never?

    The Craiova Group is a needed sub-regional format with an indisputable added value to Southeast Europe, which, however, has significant faults to address if it wants to persist. The idea of gathering formerly antagonistic states into one group that prioritises issues of objective relevance to the region, such as connectivity and European integration, is without doubt noble. Nevertheless, the C4 needs to refine its organisational outlook and create a distinct imagery to make sure its existence is not held hostage by political instability in its members and render the format more attractive at home and abroad. Fundamentally, the Craiova countries must address internal problems related to media freedom and the rule of law in order to construct a coherent bloc within the EU and Schengen which is able to realise and expand its priorities.

     

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