Croatia assumed chairmanship of the South-East European Cooperation Process (SEECP) from Bulgaria at a summit in Sofia on Wednesday.

Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev hosted the summit of this leading forum for political cooperation in this part of Europe, which was launched 20 years ago, and handed over the chair to Croatian Foreign and European Affairs Minister Miro Kovac.

Presenting Croatia's priorities while chairing this political forum during his address at a plenary session, Kovac highlighted five fundamental principles: solidarity, support to candidate countries and potential candidates for membership to the European Union (EU), connecting southeast Europe (particularly in the field of transport and communication), strengthening political dialogue (particularly via parliamentary cooperation), and energy synergy.

"Guided by those principles, Croatia will focus on three priority areas: science and education, energy, and responding to crisis situations (a non-traditional role of armed forces in humanitarian and crisis situations," said Kovac.

When it comes to science and education, Croatia plans to establish a joint regional Western Balkans Research and Innovation Centre (WISE) based in Split, he said.

The main aim of this institution, according to Kovac, is to promote cross-border cooperation in science and joint projects, using a joint science infrastructure as well as creating a bridge toward research and development of new technologies in the EU.

"Research and development will contribute to strengthening innovations in the economy, tourism, culture and all sections of society. Through concrete projects, we will be able to create jobs, improve conditions for the young and for entrepreneurs, and find ways for sustainable growth in key sectors," he said. He added that the condition of at least four ratifications to establish the centre in Split had already been obtained and that preparations for the centre are well on the way.

"Our goal is to achieve that task during Croatia's chairing of the SEECP," he added.

With regard to energy, Kovac said that energy security was a basic prerequisite for economic growth and development. "That is also a key political issue, seeing that energy dependency jeopardises a country's ability to make sovereign political decisions," he explained.

Stressing Croatia's strategic commitment to diversifying energy supply, sources and supply routes, Kovac said that Croatia will contribute to projects like the new floating LNG terminal on Krk and the Adriatic-Ionian gas pipeline.

He underscored the importance of connecting countries in southeast Europe and the need to strengthen cooperation in developing the energy infrastructure. "In that regard, Croatia plans to organise a high-level energy conference in the spring of 2017," he said.

With reference to the third priority, crisis response, according to Kovac, Croatia will work on strengthening the non-traditional role of the armed forces in alleviating humanitarian crises and natural disasters.

"As we learned in the migrant crisis, solidarity and coordination between our countries are of the greatest importance. We have to set up a quick response system and more efficient ways of utilising the synergy between the police and armed forces who are always prepared to assist and alleviate any type of crisis," he said.

In light of the global threat of terrorism, radicalisation and extremism, Minister Kovac underlined the importance of cooperation and information exchange between national security forces and intelligence agencies with the aim of preventing threats before they occur.

Finally, Kovac stressed that Croatia strongly supports countries in southeast Europe in their European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

"I will take this opportunity to clearly say that the so-called western Balkans is an essential part of Europe. We should use the SEECP to strongly promote that stance. There can't be a black hole on the map of Europe," Kovac concluded.

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