While many of her Norwegian colleagues were taking off on summer holidays this week, Prime Minister Erna Solberg headed off an official visit to Serbia and Croatia. The Norwegian government has long been concerned with political stability in the Balkans, and has nearly doubled economic support to the region in the past year.
“Norway has had a lengthy engagement in the region and we’ll be continuing it,” Solberg said before setting off on the two-day trip that took her first to Belgrade and then to Zagreb. “The countries in the West Balkans must go through major reforms to generate economic and social progress. It’s important that we support them so that they in turn can contribute to development, cooperation and security in Europe.”
Solberg’s office reported that Norway’s foreign aid to the West Balkans rose from NOK 175 million last year to NOK 319 million (USD 40 million) this year. The funding is meant to support cooperation and reconciliation in a region where tensions have been rising again, nearly 20 years after the Balkan wars of the 1990s finally ended. Various ethnic, religious and political conflicts that broke out after the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, along with conflicts over declarations of independence, are still smoldering at a time when both Russian and European leaders seek influence in the region.
Europe’s and Norway’s shared goal is to keep more wars in the Balkans from breaking out again. Solberg, leader of a country that’s an active member of NATO, was welcomed in Belgrade, a city that has preserved the ruins of several buildings bombed by NATO forces during the war. The welcome could be viewed as a sign of the reconciliation that Solberg promotes.
Solberg’s government and opposition politicians as well want to preserve peace in the region, with Solberg claiming that economic integration and participation in Europe will help reduce conflict levels. Croatia has already become a member of the European Union, and Solberg stressed that Norway supports Serbia’s application for EU membership. Even though Norway has twice voted against joining the EU itself, Solberg’s Conservative Party still promotes EU membership for Norway as well. As an alternative to membership, Norway has a comprehensive agreement with the EU that gives Norway full access to the EU’s inner market in return for large amounts of funding to the EU and compliance with most EU regulations and directives. Part of that funding is sent to Balkan countries.
“We support Serbia’s reform efforts and application for EU membership,” Solberg said, adding that “we are glad the country has taken a leadership role in the work towards stability and development.” Solberg claims that such work, along with Norway’s own ongoing cooperation with Croatia, “isn’t just good for the region, but also for Europe and Norway.”
Solberg met with Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic in Belgrade, where she also made a point of visiting a human rights institute. In Croatia Solberg had meetings with Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and the president/speaker of the Croatian Parliament, Gordan Jandrokovic. New agreements were signed, also one aimed at securing exchange and protection of classified information between Norway and Croatia.
“Norway and Croatia have strong ties,” Solberg said. “Signing these agreements will contribute to strengthening cooperation between our countries in a series of new arenas.”
Solberg told NTB that it was important for Europe and Norway “that we manage to put behind us the divisive situation in the Balkans. It hasn’t been many decades (less than two) since we had a war on European soil.” Norway wants to do what it can to prevent that from happening again.