Foreign ministers of the Central European Initiative (CEI) countries met in Split on Monday to discuss the process of European Union's enlargement, and the issue of migration.
"We summarised the state of the enlargement process, and welcomed the fact that the EU, for the first time after 15 years, held a summit on that topic in Sofia, Bulgaria," Croatian Foreign Minister, Marija Pejcinovic-Buric, said after the meeting in Split, held as part of Croatia's presidency of CEI, referring to the Western Balkans summit held in May.
"Croatia's presidency of CEI is an introduction to Croatia's presidency of the Council of the EU, where European Union enlargement will also be the main topic," she added.
She said migration was the other important issue discussed in Split. "We concluded that cooperation between (CEI) countries is essential, as the migration issue can't be dealt with now, when illegal migrants are coming to the borders. It's an issue on a much larger scale." She said although new migrant routes have emerged, the situation was not as extreme as it had been in 2015, during the peak of the migrant crisis.
"It's important that there is an agreement between the EU and Turkey, which had good results, and since 2015 many partnerships have been forged, notably with countries in the Sub-Saharan region, which are helping reduce the number of illegal migrants on the European Union border," she said.
Pejcinovic-Buric said that the EU had a foundation for Africa, in which Croatia is taking part, and that the money was being directed into countries where crises and wars were breaking out, in order to reduce those crises as well as the number of migrants heading for Europe. She said the EU was preparing a new agreement for Africa and some other undeveloped countries to deter people from embarking on a difficult journey towards Europe.
The Foreign Ministry said Zagreb would host a summit of CEI prime ministers by the end of this year. CEI comprises ten countries which are members of the EU (Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia), and eight, most of whom are in various stages of negotiations on EU membership (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Moldova, Serbia, Ukraine, Belarus).
On the fringes of the Split summit, Pejcinovic-Buric met with Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero Milanesi, whose country will take over the CEI presidency in 2019.
The two ministers confirmed their determination to continue the bilateral dialogue and exchange views on numerous issues of bilateral, European and global significance, the ministry said, adding that the two ministers emphasised the importance of keeping and ensuring the highest level of protection of ethnic minority rights.
Pejcinovic-Buric said CEI would mark its 30th anniversary next year. She said "big tectonic changes" had taken place in Europe during those three decades, and that it was necessary to adapt CEI to "the requirements of the present time."
"Austria has informed us that it will pull out of the Central European Initiative next year. That's the policy of Austria's new government which, reviewing its memberships, has decided that Austria's CEI membership is not a priority for them at this time," she said. CEI Secretary-General Giovanni Caracciolo di Vietri told reporters he was not surprised by Austria's decision.
Austria is withdrawing in a friendly way. We will continue to cooperate, but CEI is no longer their priority right now. We will continue connecting and cooperating with the remaining countries. The conviction and the firmness with which the Italian and Hungarian foreign ministers, as well as other ministers, confirmed that they want to continue this cooperation is strong proof that this initiative will continue, Caracciolo di Vietri said.
Asked how Italy's new government would impact the handling of the migrant crisis, he said Italy had already paid a high price. We all need a European refugee strategy, and we will have to achieve European cooperation, instead of Italy always bearing the largest share of the burden, he added.
CEI ministers adopted a joint statement welcoming the progress achieved by CEI member states which are not yet in the EU on closer relations with the bloc. The ministers encouraged those countries to make additional efforts in order to meet the EU accession requirements, and further develop their partnership with the EU, their joint statement said.
The ministers emphasised the importance of respecting the rule of law, fundamental rights and responsible governance, which are fundamental values for democracy and a key criterion for EU enlargement and neighbourhood policy, they added.