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Regional videoconference for cooperation post-COVID-19

Today we reaffirmed our resolve to continue and deepen our cooperation with a view to mitigate the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, and lay the groundwork for the region’s recovery, reads the joint statement after the second ministerial forum "Thessaloniki 2020" including the foreign ministers of North Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, MIA reports from Athens.

Athens, 19 May 2020 (MIA) – Today we reaffirmed our resolve to continue and deepen our cooperation with a view to mitigate the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, and lay the groundwork for the region’s recovery, reads the joint statement after the second ministerial forum “Thessaloniki 2020” including the foreign ministers of North Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, MIA reports from Athens.

The videoconference, hosted by FM Nikola Dimitrov and Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias, was also attended by the European Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi, representatives from Croatia, the current EU Presidency holder, Helga Schmid, Secretary General of the European External Action Service,  and Johannes Luchner from the EU Directorate General for Migration and Home Affairs.

In the conference address, FM Dimitrov expressed satisfaction from the fact that North Macedonia and Greece co-host counterparts from the region and EU member-states, and Union officials, towards initiating joint cooperation in the next stage of the pandemic, a feat that could not be even imagined a few years ago.

“I believe we will continue to develop the feeling of unity that was created after the initial shock from the crisis, for sooner and safer return to the regular socio-economic course of our societies and recovery from the COVID-19 consequences,” said Dimitrov.

He thanked the EU partners for taking North Macedonia into consideration when adopting different measures and guidelines for the crisis management, handling its effects and gradual relaxation of the restrictions.

“All of this provides assurance that such an approach will be used in the future, for the purpose of complete EU integration of the Western Balkans. The joint statement we adopted today is another indicator in this regard,” added Dimitrov.

The meeting produced 10 conclusions that refer to the EU-Western Balkans strategic partnership, the health and tourism sector, transport, regional cooperation, respect of individual rights and freedoms, independent media and fight against disinformation, as well as welcoming the Union’s decision to help the region in managing the pandemic.

The conference’s objective was to initiate a discussion among the ministries of foreign affairs so they can successfully contribute, through collaboration, in order to deal effectively with the pandemic and diminish, to the greatest possible extent, its extensive social and economic impact on the region.

“In this spirit, we are ready to discuss, at the level of the competent authorities, the best ways to gradually ease restrictions, depending on the situation at national and EU level, with regard to cross-border/boundary travel and in tourism, a sector which has been particularly hit by the crisis and constitutes an important driver of growth and job-creation for many countries in the region. The Tourism and Transport package presented by the European Commission on May 13th, 2020, that includes a set of guidelines and recommendations to help the European Union Member States to gradually lift travel restrictions and allow tourism businesses to reopen, while respecting necessary health precautions, could be a valuable asset in this respect, will also serve as guidelines for the Western Balkans,” reads the joint statement.

On the vital health sector, the establishment of a regular and enhanced cooperation among epidemiologists and public health experts could have real added value for the overall containment of the pandemic and the prevention of its further spreading.

“This cooperation could foster the creation of a regional network of hospitals and health care units that should cooperate in order to treat COVID-19 patients. Experts and health professionals should exchange views with regard to the development of health protocols for hospitality establishments and deliberate on the criteria, as well as for the safe and gradual restoration of tourism activities,” notes the statement.

Regarding transport, a coordinated framework to safely restore transport and connectivity at bilateral and regional levels should become a priority. In this context ministers welcome the European Commission’s initiative to ensure “fast flow of goods through Green Lanes linking the EU and the Western Balkans”. The “Green lanes” linking the EU to the Western Balkans must remain “green” also in the post emergency period in order to improve significantly the intra WB and the EU-WB’s accessibility. This will require progressive removal of all unnecessary obstacles of both administrative and infrastructure nature affecting the flow of goods and passengers between WB and EU.

“Restoring movement, reopening borders/boundaries and lifting imposed measures should be a gradual process, based on epidemiological assessment and implemented in a coordinated manner. The health of transport workers and passengers and the swift minimization of any risk regarding the resurgence of the pandemic will be top priority. The Transport Community will be instrumental in addressing these priorities,” reads the statement.

Given that the tourism sector, which now faces an unprecedented challenge, constitutes a major component of the region’s economies and societies, the ministers remain fully committed to actively support all efforts and measures aiming at mitigating the pandemic’s negative impact.

“A coordination process amongst competent authorities, at regional level, and regular cross-border/boundary communication could be taken into consideration in order to facilitate restoration and resumption of tourism activities, including cross-border/boundary traffic. Taking full advantage of available national and EU funds, designing and implementing specialized and targeted regional and interregional strategies to back up the tourist industry (businesses and people) and fully supporting unemployed people to regain access to the labour market, in particular the youth, could form a considerable part of policies and measures aiming at benefiting the tourism sector at national and regional level,” reads the statement.

The ministers also underline the importance of the full respect for individual rights and freedoms, as well as independent media and the free exchange of accurate and reliable information.

“We stress out the challenges of false or manipulated information on the spread of COVID-19, which can put people’s lives and the resilience of the societies at risk. In this context, we are determined to combat the proliferation of disinformation, as well as hate speech. In this respect, European Union support and solidarity with the Western Balkans, in the context of the COVID crisis, deserve public acknowledgement and communication in the region, in order to combat disinformation attempts,” reads the statement.

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