09 Jan 2008   |   News

Innovation: the road to peace in south-central Europe?

Can investment in science and technology help bring stability and prosperity to one of Europe’s oldest trouble-spots?

The European Union plans a major boost for the science and technology sector in south-central Europe, in the region known as the Western Balkans. But can investment in science and technology help bring stability and prosperity to one of Europe’s oldest trouble-spots? Many leading scientists believe it can, a view which is driving the efforts of scientific and research institutions across the EU and within the Western Balkans to prove the case.

The countries that comprise the Western Balkans region (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia [including Kosovo] and Montenegro) have all been profoundly affected by the political and military conflicts of the recent past. Yet since the war and the consequent disruption of the 1990s, substantial progress has been made in recent years towards establishing a more settled and peaceful social order based upon democracy and the rule of law.

For the European Union, the priority in recent years has been to promote the development of peace, stability, prosperity and freedom in the region. Now the tiny former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia, with just two million inhabitants, plans to use its six-month role coordinating EU policies to shift the EU’s foreign-policy attention to the Western Balkans in particular.

Slovenia has, since 1 January 2008, become the first post-communist EU member state to assume the responsibility of the EU’s rotating six-month presidency. Its efforts are being reinforced by those of a near-neighbour, Romania, which is preparing to launch a Regional Cooperation Programme for the Western Balkan countries that specifically targets scientific research, technological development and innovation.

A focus on building stability

The two countries’ efforts add emphasis to a stated aim of the Union ever since the Lisbon Council of March 2000. That aim was to establish a series of stabilisation and association agreements with the Western Balkan countries, in which “asymmetrical trade liberalisation” would lead to a series of free-trade areas for the region.

The Thessaloniki summit in June 2003 was an important milestone in this endeavour. The 2003 summit launched a key policy framework, the Stabilisation and Association process, to encourage and support domestic reform processes within the Western Balkans region. Since that date, a succession of Stabilisation and Association Agreements (SAAs) have been or are being drawn up with each country to cover political dialogue, support for political and economic reform, aid, trade relations and more.

Key role for science and technology

Modernisation of the science and technology sector in particular is seen as key to the development of market economies for the region. New laws on scientific and research activities, higher education and intellectual property rights have all either been implemented or have passed local parliamentary legislation.

Most of the Western Balkan nations have also established science and technology advisory boards or innovation councils to plan future research strategies and the allocation of research funding. And, while the involvement of private enterprise in public R&D is as yet limited in scope, national governments are attempting to strengthen research cooperation between the public and private sectors for both domestic and international markets.

The Thessaloniki summit also saw the launch by the Greek Presidency of the EU / Western Balkan Action Plan in Science and Technology. The plan attached particular importance to integrating the region’s research and development activities with those of the EU member states within the growing European Research Area (ERA). Additional momentum for the plan was provided during the Austrian Presidency in 2006, through the establishment of a Steering Platform on Research for the Western Balkans region.

A key role has also been played by the partners within the Southeast European Era-Net (SEE-ERA.NET) project, which focused on establishing a network of policy makers and funding bodies capable of supporting science and technology research cooperation between the Western Balkans and the EU. Since September 2004, 17 institutions from 14 countries (including all of the Western Balkan nations) have been actively involved in the project, which was funded under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) for EU research and development. The project lead in November 2006 to a Pilot Call for joint research projects by all the partners involved, and 320 project proposals from a total of 1432 different research teams.

Participation in FP7 and beyond

The current EU programme for research and innovation, the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), is seen as offering many opportunities for research cooperation by the various research institutions and actors across the Western Balkans. However the exact nature of any participation will depend on the status of the bilateral agreement per country.

Albania, Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia have all signed association agreements for FP7, according potential research partners from these countries the same status as consortia within the EU. At time of writing, Montenegro was in the process of signing such an association agreement, while Bosnia and Herzegovina have been accorded the status of “International Cooperation Partner Countries”(ICPCs).

Outside of the EU Framework programmes, research actors in all of the Western Balkan countries are being encouraged to establish either cross-border research and development cooperation agreements, or to actively participate in international research projects.

To this end, Albania has already instituted bilateral cooperation agreements with Macedonia and Slovenia to add to its existing agreements with Greece and Italy. Macedonia has set up over 100 cooperation projects with other countries including Bulgaria, China, France, Japan and Russia. Montenegro was involved in 47 bilateral cooperation projects in 2006, while Serbia has ongoing bilateral programmes with countries including France, Greece, Slovakia and Slovenia.

This information in this briefing paper has drawn heavily on the White Paper ‘Transition Studies Review’ developed by SEE.ERA.NET in 2007. The full document can be accessed here.

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