Shifting the narrative – a revitalised approach to the Western Balkans

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Shifting the narrative – a revitalised approach to the Western Balkans

Summary

YOUNG BALKAN VOICES: LISTENING TO THE NEXT GENERATION

TUESDAY 7 DECEMBER 2021

Friends of Europe’s annual EU-Western Balkans Summit on Tuesday called for a revitalised approach to relations, looking beyond the region’s stalled EU membership process to focus on positive developments including opportunities for increased youth, civil society and private sector engagement; funding for the green digital transition; and the region’s growing ability to attract trade and investment.

“Europe won’t be complete without the Western Balkan counties,” insisted Dubravka Šuica, European Commission Vice-President and Commissioner for Democracy and Demography, said as the summit got underway.

Young Balkan voices: listening to the next generation

Speaking at roundtable with young people ahead of the summit, Šuica insisted the region -and in particular its young people – will have a say in the EU’s Future of Europe Conference, launched in 2019 to examine reforms of the Union’s policies and institutions.

“We are preparing this Europe for the next generation, together with you, with young citizens,” Šuica said. “We cannot talk about the future of Europe, without having Western Balkans in mind.”

A survey by UNICEF, released to coincide with the summit, showed strong support for joining the EU among Balkan youth.

Over 57% think their country’s membership would ‘make things better’. However, they have little hope that’s going to happen soon, and the survey shows low levels of trust for local politicians.

“The young generation is the engine of every country, and their trust is crucial for any political representative,” Alesia Alldervishi, an International and European Law Student at the Europa Institut of Germany’s Saarland University, wrote in an article for Friends of Europe.

“Yet, 24.4% think that their country will never get into the EU, and 60.5% strongly disagree that political representatives heard their voice,” she added, referring to the UNICEF report.
“These two statistics show the immediate need for Western Balkan countries and their governments to recognise the youth perspective and reconsider how the youth is involved in decision-making processes.”

Other youth representatives called for greater EU support to bolster democracy and civil society in the region; more structures to give young people a stronger political voice; and an end to restrictive visa policies that limit their mobility in Europe.

Šuica said EU initiatives such as the Economic and Investment Plan, which aims to leverage up to €30bn to support post-pandemic recovery in the region, will help create conditions for young people to meet their aspirations at home and reduce the flow of emigration.

Trade and investment – a question of geopolitics?

Recent growth in foreign investment has been a success story for the Western Balkans. Foreign direct investment (FDI) in 2019 accounted for 6.3% of the region’s gross domestic product (GDP), the highest rate in Europe, pointed out Igor Lukšić, former prime minister, former minister of finance and former foreign minister of Montenegro. Behind those impressive numbers, the economic interests of players such as China, Russia and Turkey have raised concerns in the West.

Speakers from the region offered some reassurance, at least for the moment. Not only is the EU, by far, the biggest economic player in the region, but its role as leading partner is widely supported by the local population. However, that could change if the EU continues to thwart Balkan membership aspirations, speakers warned. “This has a bearing on the EU’s position, narrative, capability and leverage,” cautioned Maja Handjiska-Trendafilova, Head of Programme Department at the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC).

There was a broad welcome for the EU’s Economic and Investment Plan, talk of a gradual integration of the region into the EU’s single market, and initiatives to promote a regional common market. However, speakers insisted such moves cannot be a substitute for EU membership and they appealed for European leaders to unblock the accession process.

“Without an effective accession process towards the EU, there is no stable and quality solution,” said Lukšić. “I’m not advocating for short cuts, I’m asking for the process to move.”

A sustainable recovery – looking towards the future

Priorities in the EU investment plan have been worked out with Balkan leaders to maximise job creation and economic modernisation, while ensuring the region mirrors the EU’s own post-pandemic recovery drive based on green and digital transitions, explained Maciej Popowski, Acting Director-General of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations.

“It’s not based on magic nor wishful thinking. It’s based on very specific input coming from the countries in the region,” he said. “On the one hand, we would like the region to join the EU climate ambitions and on the other, they should also become thriving modern economies.”

As the region’s main markets in the EU demand greener and cleaner products, it’s essential that Balkan economies make a climate-friendly switch, said Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, Assistant Administrator of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). “One cluster that will define whether this region is going to grow in the future is greening and digital,” she said. “Greening the environmental footprint of these economics will define the future economic capacity of all the countries individually in the Western Balkans.”

The EU investment plan will represent about one-third of the region’s total GDP, Popowski noted, but beyond the massive amount of money, speakers from the region underscored the importance of ensuring that it is well spent, supporting grassroots initiatives, promoting inclusive growth for women and young people, and spurring entrepreneurship.

Talking from the inside out – new routes to bridging the gap

The final session underscored the importance of social advances and resilient economies as a driving force for improving democracy and the quality of life in the region, not just tools to move closer to EU membership.

Erion Veliaj, Mayor of Tirana, expressed “enormous” disappointment at the lack of political progress towards enlargement, but rather than sit around and wait for change, he is moving to modernise Albania’s capital with support from European financial institutions and in partnership with other cities in the EU and beyond.

“The European Union is playing on two gears, there is this very slow political gear … and yet we have this agile Europe, which is the European Investment Bank [EIB], the EBRD [European Bank for Reconstruction and Development], the Council of Europe [Development] Bank,” he said. “Most of my trips now are in Luxembourg and London, rather than in Brussels, because financial Europe is moving much faster.”

Mila Carovska, Minister of Education and Science of North Macedonia and 2020-2021 European Young Leader (EYL40), explained how she’s working to advance education as key for economic progress, democracy, the rule of law and – as the COVID-19 crisis has shown – public health. Likewise, Biljana Spasovska, Executive Director at the Balkans Civil Society Development Network, stressed the importance of civil society in protecting democracy and human rights. Stressing the need for renewed EU support, she also recalled that civil society is “the biggest driver” behind support for the Balkan’s integration into the EU.

EU enlargement is at the core of the European integration project and the Union’s leaders need to find the courage to push ahead with it for the sake of the whole continent, insisted Gordana Čomić, Serbian Minister for Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue. “That is something the European Union should do,” she said. “The message to the people living in this region [should be]: ‘you are our success as a foreign policy of the European Union, and you are part of this continent and we take you on board because it is the right thing to do’.”

About

About

Democratic and economic growth are intertwined with the Balkan region’s EU accession progress. However, as the process drags on, frustration grows and steps forward falter – perhaps the time has come for both sides to revitalise this approach.

The goals for a resilient region and EU accession are the same, but it is time to recalibrate the talking points. Development prospects need to go beyond the end goal of EU membership. The benefits of a robust democracy, stable economy and social evolution should be goals in and of themselves, forging a foundation for a thriving region with its roots in durable peace, reconciliation and resilience.

This year’s EU-Western Balkans Summit aims to engage with these overlapping and interlinking themes, promote new and progressive voices, and foster pathways to regional cooperation, resilience and inclusion. Discussions will inform a series of recommendations for a better future for the Balkans and seamless cooperation with the EU. To this end, we will amplify the voices of women, youth and alternative leadership in structural development such as digital transition, green transformation, increased regional cooperation and the strengthening of democracy and rule of law.

The 2021 edition of this annual summit is part of a new approach to our work on the Balkans, moving from a problem-solving dynamic to an asset-based approach focused on the positive dynamics of the Balkans. Reframing the narrative to focus on people-centred priorities rather than political objectives can bring a fresh policy perspective to overwrought discussions on how to strengthen and develop the Balkan region and close the gap to the EU.

This summit is the highlight of our Balkans Journey, a series of events and articles discussing crucial developments and creative solutions for the Western Balkans with key stakeholders in the run-up to this annual Balkans Summit.

Schedule

Schedule

PRE-SUMMIT YOUTH VIRTUAL ROUNDTABLE - Young Balkan voices: listening to the next generation
Expand PRE-SUMMIT YOUTH VIRTUAL ROUNDTABLE - Young Balkan voices: listening to the next generation

Today’s policies will define the future of the Western Balkans, so it only makes sense that the next generation has its say on the issues important to youth. High levels of youth unemployment and disillusionment with stagnant social, political and economic development contribute to youth discontent and brain drain. Policymakers need to engage with and listen to the upcoming generation to transform the narrative around the Western Balkans and make the region an attractive prospect for their futures.

This virtual roundtable will bring together a group of young people from Western Balkan countries to present, debate and disseminate their views. They will have the chance to discuss their opinions with Vice-President of the European Commission and Commissioner for People and Demography Dubravka Šuica, who will offer some introductory remarks and also exchange perspectives with the youth delegates. The conversation will focus on their priorities for the future, opinions on EU accession, social policy and education, as well as consider how economic strategies can take the career pathways and opportunities desirable to youth into account.

Taking place just prior to our high-level summit sessions, the conclusions and questions coming out of this roundtable will be put to Western Balkan and EU policymakers participating in the subsequent debates, challenging their perceptions of the status quo and whether their policy initiatives align with youth priorities.

Questions include:

  • How do young people view the opportunities for their future in the Western Balkans?
  • What do young people think about the possibility of EU membership?
  • Do young people feel that politicians and policies represent their priorities?

IN CONVERSATION WITH

Dubravka Šuica

Vice-President of the European Commission and Commissioner for Democracy and Demography

MODERATOR

Dharmendra Kanani

Director, Asia, Peace, Security & Defense, Digital & Chief spokesperson

OPENING SESSION - Trade and investment: a question of geopolitics?
Expand OPENING SESSION - Trade and investment: a question of geopolitics?

The Western Balkans’ geopolitical positioning has a distinct impact on its own socio-economic affairs. While the EU acts as the Balkans’ predominant partner, it has also attracted interest from the United States and Turkey, while China and Russia have also become heavily involved in the region. Experts have highlighted how the Western Balkans can leverage the competing interests in its market to its advantage. The region has proven to be a competitive and attractive partner on the international scene, rivalling India on the global business process and technology outsourcing (BPTO) market, for instance, and increasingly engaging Eastern investors. Recent analyses have highlighted that the upward post-pandemic recovery trends represent an opportunity for the region to boost its attractiveness to foreign investors. However, where there are opportunities, there are also risks. Balancing foreign investment with stronger regional economic ties can help build economic resilience and sustainable practices. The region can thereby avoid over-reliance on external actors while making the most of increased financial capacities.

This session will explore the dynamics and interests of external actors in the Western Balkans and how best to tap into the region’s capacities, bringing together key stakeholders and senior experts to debate the geopolitical dynamics of trade and investment.

Questions include:

  • What are the opportunities and risks associated with foreign investment in the Western Balkans?
  • How can the Western Balkans region best utilise these external interests to build trade and diplomatic links and grow its economies?
  • Which sectors are most affected by foreign investment and which external actors are investing where? What effect is this having on the region’s economies?

SPEAKERS

Igor Luksic

Former prime minister, former minister of finance and former foreign minister of Montenegro

Ardita Seknaj

Secretary General of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) Albania

Maja Handjiska-Trendafilova

Head of the Programme Department of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC)

MODERATOR

Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for emerging security challenges at NATO

SESSION II - A sustainable recovery: looking towards the future
Expand SESSION II - A sustainable recovery: looking towards the future

The Western Balkans has already made significant steps forward in its recovery from the social and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The next steps in the process should continue to focus on using recovery funds for sustainable initiatives and economic cooperation. Friends of Europe’s 2020 EU-Western Balkans Summit highlighted the importance of regional cooperation, engaging all sectors of society, and promoting the digital and green transitions to encourage competitiveness and innovation. Increased investment in transforming the energy industry and developing digital infrastructure can offer new ways to create jobs and shape the future of the region, while stemming brain drain and closing the gap to the EU. Building on last year’s findings, this session aims to evaluate what progress has been made in the region, the impact of the EU’s Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans and the value of the green and digital transitions.

Questions include:

  • How can increased investment in economic sectors, such as energy and digital, help create opportunities in the regional labour market?
  • What role can and should the private sector play in creating new opportunities?
  • How can the EU help develop Western Balkan economies beyond the recovery process and what progress has been made since the introduction of the Economic and Investment Plan?

SPEAKERS

Uranik Begu

Executive Director of the Innovation Center Kosovo* (ICK)

Maciej Popowski

Deputy Director General of the Southern Neighbourhood, Turkey, Migration, Refugees and Security Issues at the European Commission

Lilyana Pavlova

Vice-President of the European Investment Bank (EIB)

Mirjana Spoljaric-Egger

Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, Assistant Administrator of UNDP, and Director of the UNDP Regional Bureau for Europe and the CIS

MODERATOR

Dharmendra Kanani

Director, Asia, Peace, Security & Defense, Digital & Chief spokesperson

SESSION III - Talking from the inside out: new routes to bridging the gap
Expand SESSION III - Talking from the inside out: new routes to bridging the gap

Achieving social advances and resilient economies in Western Balkan countries requires broadening the development lens beyond the accession process. Local initiatives, community leaders and private sector actors can be the driving forces behind a shift from a perpetual ruling elite to revitalised leadership in the Balkans, moving from stagnating regional tensions to dialogue around tackling common issues. The Western Balkans can be a resilient and thriving region. Solutions to the region’s socio-economic and political problems can and should be internally led and defined, with the support and partnership of the EU. Engaging women, youth, civil society, local actors and the private sector can further encourage this process. This session aims to foster a discussion around building on the existing capacities of the Western Balkans, bridging the gap with the EU, and developing the region based on its own needs and interests.

Questions include:

  • How can the EU and Balkan governments support local and grassroots initiatives fostering social and economic development in the region?
  • What kind of impact can local and regional governments make on the development of the Western Balkans?
  • How can the private sector and civil society foster opportunities for a stronger region and promote alternative political leadership?

SPEAKERS

Mila Carovska

Minister for Education and Science of North Macedonia and 2020-2021 European Young Leader (EYL40)

Gordana Čomić

Serbian Minister for Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue

Biljana Spasovska

Executive Director at Balkan Civil Society Development Network (BCSDN)

Olivér Várhelyi

European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement

Erion Veliaj

Mayor of Tirana, Albania

MODERATOR

Dharmendra Kanani

Director, Asia, Peace, Security & Defense, Digital & Chief spokesperson

End of the summit
Speakers

Speakers

Uranik Begu
Uranik Begu

Executive Director of the Innovation Center Kosovo* (ICK)

Show more information on Uranik Begu

Uranik Begu leads the work of ICK, the leading integrator of innovative business and economic development in Kosovo*. The centre was founded with the mission to support entrepreneurship, innovation and commercially-based business development, with a focus on Kosovo’s* ICT and green energy sectors. Prior to joining ICK, Begu served as the head of marketing at Post Telecom Kosovo*. Begu is a renowned lecturer in the field of management and has taught at the University of Prizren, amongst others. He is also an active Member of the Economic Development Council of Prishtina and a Board Member of the Zurich CMO Conference, also known as ‘the Davos of Marketing’.

* For the United Nations, references to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of Security Council resolution 1244 (1999)

Mila Carovska
Mila Carovska

Minister for Education and Science of North Macedonia and 2020-2021 European Young Leader (EYL40)

Show more information on Mila Carovska

Prior to her current position, Mila served as Minister of Labour and Social Welfare of North Macedonia as well as Deputy Prime Minister responsible for economic affairs during the transition Government in 2020. She was elected to government in 2017. Mila is an avid proponent of human rights whose professional career to date has been marked by a commitment to social work on behalf of the most vulnerable and threatened citizens, whether it be Roma, disadvantaged youth, drug addicts or victims of domestic violence. Projects she has managed over the years include organising drama workshops with children housed in institutions, hosting educational workshops, offering consultations for drug users and their families, and conducting field research. Mila has used her platform as Minister to advocate for gender equality, the elimination of violence against women, and anti-discrimination.

Gordana Čomić
Gordana Čomić

Serbian Minister for Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue

Show more information on Gordana Čomić

Gordana Čomić was appointed to the cabinet of Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić’s in October 2020. Formerly a member of the Serbian parliament, she served as deputy speaker of the Serbian National Assembly and acted as the chair of the Foreign Policy Committee. Čomić was also a member of the National Assembly delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, where she was elected rapporteur of the Committee on Human Rights, Democracy and Humanitarian Affairs. Having founded the Women’s Parliamentary Network of the Serbian National Assembly, Čomić has actively advocated for gender equality and the equal participation of women in all decision-making positions in Serbia.

Photo of Maja Handjiska-Trendafilova
Maja Handjiska-Trendafilova

Head of the Programme Department of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC)

Show more information on Maja Handjiska-Trendafilova

Maja Handjiska-Trendafilova leads the RCC’s work in coordinating the Common Regional Market and Green Agenda, as endorsed by the Prime Ministers of Western Balkan countries. Before this, she had been the Regional Economic Area Coordinator of RCC’s South East Europe (SEE) 2020 Strategy, working on various regional cooperation, consensus, confidence and capacity building initiatives across a range of policy areas. Her professional career of over 15 years has been dedicated to furthering the progress of EU integration and regional cooperation processes of SEE. Prior to joining RCC, Handjiska-Trendafilova served in North Macedonia’s national administration for more than ten years and additionally worked at the North Macedonian Mission to the EU in Brussels.

Igor Luksic
Igor Luksic

Former prime minister, former minister of finance and former foreign minister of Montenegro

Show more information on Igor Luksic

Igor Luksic is an Associate Professor at the University of Donja Gorica in Montenegro and currently works on sustainable development initiatives in Southeast Europe related to the United Nations SDGs and 2030 Agenda. Having served in several governmental positions, Luksic has demonstrated his commitment to political and economic freedoms and reforms throughout his 18 years working in the public sector. Luksic has long advocated for transparency, with an emphasis on dialogue and proactivity when it comes to both internal and foreign relations, as well as the need for enhanced regional cooperation in the Western Balkans.

Pavlova Lilyana
Lilyana Pavlova

Vice-President of the European Investment Bank (EIB)

Show more information on Lilyana Pavlova

Lilyana Pavlova is Vice-President and Member of the Management Committee of the European Investment Bank (EIB). She took up her duties in November last year and is the first Bulgarian national to join the Management Committee. Pavlova is responsible for transport financing and has more than twenty years of experience in the field of management of European funds and projects. She held various public functions in Bulgaria and has been a Member of the Bulgarian Government since 2009. Pavlova was Minister for the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2018 – the first time that the country held the rotating presidency.

Photo of Maciej Popowski
Maciej Popowski

Deputy Director General of the Southern Neighbourhood, Turkey, Migration, Refugees and Security Issues at the European Commission

Show more information on Maciej Popowski

Maciej Popowski is a Polish diplomat, who previously served as deputy director-general of DG NEAR before assuming his current role. He is the former deputy secretary-general of the European External Action Service (EEAS). Popowski has also previously served as the head of Jerzy Buzek’s cabinet, Poland’s permanent representative in the EU’s Political and Security Committee, and deputy head of the Permanent Representation of the Republic of Poland to the European Union. At the time of Poland’s EU accession negotiations, he was the director for EU affairs at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Ardita Seknaj
Ardita Seknaj

Secretary General of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) Albania

Show more information on Ardita Seknaj

Ardita Seknaj leads the work of the National Committee of the ICC Albania and lectures on EU institutions and structures at the universitylevel. Her areas of interest also include sustainable development, international trade and finance, as well as EU integration processes. Seknaj serves as consultant on various regional projects and currently sits on the temporary Advisory Board of the United States-Albania Transparency Academy. Previously, Seknaj worked in the banking sector across various fields, including trade finance, project management and insurance.

Biljana Spasovka
Biljana Spasovska

Executive Director at Balkan Civil Society Development Network (BCSDN)

Show more information on Biljana Spasovska

Biljana Spasovska is an expert in democracy and civil society development, EU integration, good governance and accountability. Prior to her position as Executive Director at BCSDN, she was responsible for the network’s policy and advocacy activities. Spasovska has more than seven years of experience in project development and coordination of international projects with civil society organisations, think tanks and academia, and she has worked in the government sector. She is also a Fellow at Stanford University’s Leadership Academy for Development.

Photo of Mirjana Spoljaric-Egger
Mirjana Spoljaric-Egger

Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, Assistant Administrator of UNDP, and Director of the UNDP Regional Bureau for Europe and the CIS

Show more information on Mirjana Spoljaric-Egger

In her current position, Mirjana Spoljaric Egger leads UNDP’s work in supporting countries across the Western Balkans in their efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, amongst other responsibilities. Egger previously served as Head of United Nations and International Organisations Division of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, where she was instrumental in shaping Switzerland’s position to the UN. She combines a strong policy background with field experience and has had several assignments in the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.

Dubravka Šuica
Dubravka Šuica

Vice-President of the European Commission and Commissioner for Democracy and Demography

Show more information on Dubravka Šuica

Dubravka Šuica leads the Commission’s work on deliberative democracy and the Conference on the Future of Europe, giving people a say in how the Union is run and what it does. She is in charge of ensuring that Europe’s social protection systems adequately address the needs of an ageing population, as well as coordinating a long-term vision for rural areas and better reconciliation between work and family life. Šuica is a former member of the European and Croatian parliaments. She served as the vice-president of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe for 10 years and was the first female to serve as mayor of the city of Dubrovnik.

Photo of Olivér Várhelyi
Olivér Várhelyi

European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement

Show more information on Olivér Várhelyi

Olivér Várhelyi is an experienced diplomat who has spent the past 25 years dealing with EU politics in various roles. Prior to his current position, he served as Ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary at the Permanent Representation of Hungary to the EU and worked as the Head of Unit responsible for Industrial Property Rights at the European Commission. He also held the positions of Head of the Legal Service at the Permanent Representation of the Republic of Hungary to the European Union and Legal counsellor at the Mission of the Republic of Hungary to the European Union.

Erion Veliaj
Erion Veliaj

Mayor of Tirana, Albania

Show more information on Erion Veliaj

Prior to his tenure as mayor, Erion Veliaj served as a member of the Albanian parliament and minister of social welfare and youth. At the time, he introduced influential reforms on pensions, welfare payments, employment opportunities and professional education. His leadership in Tirana has been most notably marked by the city’s focus on creating a greener, more humane and more sustainable city. For the first time in the country’s history, Veliaj structured the Socialist Party’s branches in countries where the Albanian diaspora resides and successfully contributed to the organisation of the voting process for Albanian immigrants in the 2013 elections.

Dharmendra Kanani
Dharmendra Kanani

Director, Asia, Peace, Security & Defense, Digital & Chief spokesperson

Show more information on Dharmendra Kanani

Prior to joining Friends of Europe, Dharmendra Kanani was director of policy at the European Foundation Centre (EFC). He was the England director at the Big Lottery Fund, the largest independent funder in the UK and fourth largest in the world. Dharmendra has held senior positions in the public and voluntary sector and advisor to numerous ministerial policy initiatives across the UK.

Photo of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for emerging security challenges at NATO

Show more information on Jamie Shea

Retiring from NATO in September 2018 after 38 years at the organisation, Jamie Shea has occupied a number of senior positions at NATO across a wide range of areas, including external relations, press and media, and policy planning. As NATO’s spokesperson, he was the face of the Alliance during the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts. He later worked as the Director of Policy Planning in the private office of former Secretary General Rasmussen during the preparation of NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept. Shea is also a regular lecturer and conference speaker on NATO and European security affairs.

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