The EU has to work much more on its visibility in the region, says German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel.

The EU should invest more and engage more, he said, speaking at the 8th Southeast Europe Foreign Ministers’ Conference organized by the Aspen Institute.

“It is particularly important at this moment, when tensions have increased, political divisions within societies have been transferred to the region, ethnic divisions which seemed to be overcome have reemerged, and the process lost its appeal among the population,” Sigmar said, according to the European Western Balkans website.

The problematic situation is caused by home-grown problems as well as the impression that the EU has left the region, while additional financial means should reduce the social hardship, the German official said.

Germany’s foreign minister says he cannot believe that most Serbians still believes that Russia provides the greatest financial assistance to the country.

“The main problems in the Western Balkans are of domestic origin: delays in reforms, corruption, economic stagnation and political instability. Also, we see that the fears and old traumas are used to draw attention from these problems. These are the internal problems of the region,” said Sigmar Gabriel, Deutsche Welle reported.

“However, we must be aware that the Western Balkans is not immune to what is happening in Europe and in the world,” he added, speaking at the Aspen Conference of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Southeast Europe.

Gabriel expressed concern that, as he said, “some countries outside the region are trying to reestablish a sphere of influence and are pushing the region’s neighbors against each other – and against the EU.

These factors do not come from the region, but affect it – further reducing the pace of reforms and strengthening the forces that are interested in the survival of a bad status-quo.”

“I am convinced,” said the German foreign minister, “that it is in the interest of the Western Balkans and the EU to retake the right course. And the main course has been clear since the summit in Thessaloniki – and therefore I would like to confirm: membership of six countries of the Western Balkans in the European Union – that is the goal.”

“But an honest analysis must contain a bitter truth: the prospect of membership in the EU in recent years in the Western Balkans has lost some of its appeal. The public was always disappointed when they realized that the process is full of challenges, and that it takes a long time. For that reason the rhetoric in the EU must be changed, and also in the region. Instead of blaming the EU for everything that goes wrong, responsible politicians should be encouraging their citizens on the road towards the EU – because our offer still stands,” said Gabriel.

He added that the extensive assistance which the EU already provides to the region should be made a lot more visible.

“It cannot be that, for example, in Serbia, the vast majority of the population still believes that Russia is one that offers the greatest financial help. I do not understand, for example, why someone traveling from the airport to Belgrade’s city center is welcomed by a large billboard dedicated to the Russian-Serbian friendship, while the yellow and blue of the European Union is completely invisible,” said Gabriel.

“We must accelerate large Infrastructural projects that are economically vital and have a strong symbolism – such as the highway between Serbia, Kosovo and Albania.”

In order to finance these projects, the German foreign minister proposed the establishment of an additional special fund. Members of the EU, EFTA and EEA could be donors. “A fund for dual education should also be established: yes, all that costs a lot – but if we do not invest money now – the consequences will be even more expensive,” Gabriel concluded.

Andreas Michaelis, political director at the German Foreign Ministry, said that it should be achieved through “concrete common projects and that the number of the projects needs to be significantly increased.”

Financial resources should not be seen as a problem, since the consequences of failing to change the current state would certainly be much more expensive for Germany and the EU, he said.

According to Michaelis, the change does not have to be an emotional change, but it certainly needs to be directed towards increasing the credibility of the integration process, while the idea “should be further discussed within the framework of Berlin Process.”

Serbian Foreign Ministry’s political director, Zoran Vujic, also took part in the conference, to say that although the Western Balkan countries should cooperate and support each other’s development and EU path, “they should be able to join the EU whenever they meet the required conditions independently from other countries in the region.”

“Otherwise, we would be at risk of dealing with the serious problem of internal fatigue and disappointment in the EU,” Vujic said.

The panel discussion on EU integrations in a time of crisis brought together foreign ministers of the Czech Republic, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, as well as diplomatic representatives of Kosovo and Croatia, Tanjug reported.