The integration of the Western Balkan Countries (WBC) in the European research area (ERA) and the promotion of interregional research cooperation as a contribution towards the Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) are of central importance for research policy, both for the region and for the European Union.
Countries belonging to the Western Balkans include Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.
The country that has advanced the furthest along the path to joining the European Union is Croatia, whose accession is scheduled for July 2013 as the 28th member of the European Union after the treaty was signed on 9 December 2011. The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has had the official status of an accession candidate since December 2005. The European Commission recommended resuming accession negotiations in 2012. Montenegro has also been an official accession candidate since December 2010. From the perspective of Serbia, the next goal on its path to joining the EU is being awarded candidate status sometime this year. By concluding stabilisation and association agreements with the European Union, the WBC Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina reinforced their European perspective as potential candidates for accession. The EU has also confirmed this perspective for Kosovo on numerous occasions.
Under the Austrian Presidency of the European Council, the establishment of the "Steering Platform on Research for the Western Balkan countries" in 2006 played an important role in strengthening the political dialogue between the European Commission, the member states and associated states and the Western Balkan countries in the area of science and technology. This initiative builds on the "EU Balkan Countries Action Plan in Sciences and Technology" initiated under the Greek presidency of the EU and takes place twice a year.
Improving integration of the Western Balkan Countries in the European Research Area (ERA) was also the aim of the EU-funded network project SOUTHEAST-EUROPEAN ERA-NET (SEE-ERA.Net). By linking the activities of Germany and its 13 partner countries within the framework of existing national, bilateral and regional research programmes with a special focus on South Eastern Europe, it was possible to define important milestones, such as a joint pilot call for proposals for network and research projects. Another milestone is the "White Paper" written under German leadership that defines the political strategies and recommendations for the future cooperation with the Western Balkan countries. The "White Paper" is backed up by the "Joint Action Plan" with concrete project ideas and initiatives. An important effect of this EU project was also the integration of the new EU countries of Bulgaria and Romania into cross-regional R&D cooperation with the Western Balkans. All of the countries in the Western Balkans participated in SEE-ERA.NET. The project ran for a period of five years and ended in August 2009.
The central goal of the successor project SOUTHEAST-EUROPEAN ERA-NET PLUS (SEE-ERA.NET PLUS), which is currently underway, is to issue a joint call for proposals for "Joint European Research Projects" (JERPS). Building on the experiences and results of the SEE-ERA.NET project, the aim is to drive the further integration of the South Eastern European countries, in particular the countries of the Western Balkans, in the European Research Area (ERA). The joint call for proposals was published on 1 September 2009. In addition to Germany, other countries participating in the call for proposals include Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, France, Greece, Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Austria, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia and Turkey. A total of 163 Expressions of Interest (EoI) were submitted as of 31 October 2009, all of which were qualified to receive funding. Of these, 102 EoI relate to AgroFood and 61 to ICT. A total of 23 JERPs are still receiving funding until September 2012.
The WBC-INCO.NET (INCO-NET Western Balkans) is a European network project for bi-regional dialogue between the EU, the countries associated with the EU-FP7 and the Western Balkan Countries. It supports the "Steering Platform on Research for the Western Balkan Countries". The aim is to improve the participation of researchers in the target region in European R&D projects. The consortium of WBC.INCO.NET is comprised of 29 partners from 16 countries, including the ministries of research of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Austria, Serbia, Slovenia and Turkey. Numerous research institutions and agencies also participate. The project got underway in January 2008 and will run until the end of 2013.
Against the background of EU expansion to the east, the BMBF published a special funding instrument for scientific and technological cooperation with the Central, Eastern and South Eastern European countries in spring 2004. Within the scope of the programme "International Cooperation in Education and Research - Central, Eastern and South Eastern Europe Region" (regional call for proposals), funding for preparatory projects in applied research, development and education was provided to submit further project proposals for current funding programmes of the BMBF and in the 7th Research Framework Programme of the EU.