Trade experts from southeastern Europe met for two days this week in the Macedonian capital of Skopje. The topic for discussion was perhaps the biggest question in the region: how to revive Balkan economies that have been devastated by years of fighting.
While the European Union did not play a dominant role in ending the fighting in the Balkans, it has assumed a key role in efforts to revitalize the region's economy.
Irish politician Mary O'Mahony, representing the European Union's Stability Pact for the region, chaired the Skopje conference. She said one of the top priorities is to improve trade in the region.
"Trade among the countries of this region has been very, very small, which for countries that are neighbors is unusual. So our objective has always been to increase intra-regional trade and also integrate the countries with each other and also into European and global trading systems," she said.
The EU's Stability Pact, set up at the end of the Kosovo war, coordinates the EU's aid program for the region. The working group on trade, which meets quarterly, is on track toward completing by the end of this year 21 separate agreements that will create a free trade zone in southeastern Europe.
Irena Guzelova, the European Union spokeswoman in Skopje, says the EU has been able to use its influence in the region to promote freer trade and open markets. Part of the reason for this, says Ms. Guzelova, is that all countries in the region hope to eventually join the organization.
"The EU has a sort of special leverage in the whole region simply because everybody wants to become a member of the EU. They know that there is no other alternative really - but Europe and euroatlantic structures. So that gives the E- a kind of leverage. Everybody wants visas and more money," she said.
In addition to assisting governments and putting compatible trade laws in place, the Stability Pact aims to promote the construction or refurbishment of transportation corridors in the region. Progress has been slow but this past week, says Ms. O'Mahony, a breakthrough was reached that should speed construction of an east-west road and rail link, what the EU calls corridor eight, from the Adriatic to the Black Sea.
"Yes, the corridors in the region are vital for trade. We're very pleased that the memorandum of understanding on corridor eight was finally signed, earlier this week in Bari, Italy. Because that has been holding up progress on that corridor for the last two years," she said.
Corridor eight crosses the very mountainous terrain from the Bulgarian port of Burgas through Macedonia to the Albanian port of Durres. When it is completed, the EU hopes it will be a step toward helping neighboring countries become better neighbors.