Shifting the narrative – a revitalised approach to the Western Balkans

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Peace, Security & Defence
Shifting the narrative – a revitalised approach to the Western Balkans


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.



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. 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?
Welcome coffee and registration of on-site participants
Log on to online conference platform (for those joining online)
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?
Coffee break
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?
Coffee break
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?
End of the summit and cocktails


Majlinda Bregu
Majlinda Bregu

Secretary-General of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC)

Show more information on Majlinda Bregu

Majlinda Bregu is an accomplished Albanian politician and a strong believer in the European project. Before becoming the top official of the RCC, a regional cooperative framework for Southeast European countries promoting Euro-Atlantic integration, Bregu served as a member of parliament for three consecutive legislatures for the Centre Right. In this role, she worked for an all-inclusive approach and far-reaching consensus on the European perspective of Albania and the region. She has also served as the minister of European integration and as the government’s spokesperson, where she helped promote the importance of Albania’s membership perspective to the EU for the stability of the region. Additionally, she has actively supported and contributed to the Western Balkans Civil Society Forum established under the Berlin Process.

Mila Carovska
Mila Carovska

North Macedonian Minister for Education and Science 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.

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.

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.

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.



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