It takes two to tango: the Western Balkans between hope and reality

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It takes two to tango: the Western Balkans between hope and reality

Summary

Is the EU-Western Balkans ‘dance’ partnership still on?

Is the long-running ‘dance’ between the EU and the Western Balkans still gliding across the floor in harmony, or have the partners fallen dangerously out of sync?

That was the fundamental question put forward by moderator Shada Islam, Director of Europe and Geopolitics at Friends of Europe, to high-level panellists and guests at Friends of Europe’s latest debate on the region, held in Brussels on 3 December amid considerable anxiety over the Western Balkans’ immediate and long-term future.

Many at the annual policy summit event – this year entitled It Takes Two to Tango: the Western Balkans between hope and reality – gave candid accounts of their fears and frustrations following the EU’s recent surprise decision to delay accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia.

President of Kosovo*, Hashim Thaçi, said the region found itself at an “historical crossroads” and called the situation “dangerous”, with Western Balkans countries feeling discouraged by the EU’s position on the enlargement process. He cautioned that the resulting geopolitical vacuum threatens to be filled by other ideologies, with some countries already tumbling backwards into nationalism and populism.

 Representing the EU’s newest member Croatia – which is preparing to assume the EU Council Presidency in 2020 – Marko Pavić, Minister of Regional Development and EU Funds for Croatia and 2019 European Young Leader, said the decision on North Macedonia and Albania was a “mistake” and pledged to act as an “honest broker” in urging the process forwards.

Offering reassurance, the European Commission Director-General for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement, Christian Danielsson, said “the door for the Western Balkans is open. It is part of European history, it’s Europe.”

 On regional cooperation, it was “high time” a bottom-up process gave more credence to the voices of citizens, said Secretary-General of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) Majlinda Bregu, but she said the region’s countries needed to have a merit-based and “credible process” for European integration ahead of them in order to be successful.

“They need to know what kind of accession process it’s going to be. Once you deliver, is the process going to give you the famous carrot?,” she added.

 The policy summit gave space for discussions on myriad issues, including the need for: reforms to continue and not “backslide”; progress on the normalisation of Serbia–Kosovo* relations; more free movement opportunities, not least fulfilling promises on visa liberalisation for Kosovo*; more involvement from civil society and citizens, especially young people; more focus on corruption; and increased EU investment in the region.

Parallel sessions were also held to further discuss two specific themes. The first addressed the low representation of women and younger people in the region’s labour market, large-scale emigration, and the mismatch between the education system and the requirements of many employers. The second focused on the digital transformation and integration of the Western Balkans, including the physical infrastructure, building human skills, and tackling ‘brain drain’.

The event concluded with a session focusing on reconciliation in the region between cultures and ethnicities and whether non-political entities, including the arts, could play a bigger role where politics is failing, or is unwilling, to breakthrough.

Moderator Shada Islam asked whether a new narrative could see a different pose being struck by this time in 2020, adding: “Shall we get past this slow tango for next year and say we are going to rock and roll?”

It takes two to tango: The western Balkans between hope and reality.


* For the United Nations Development Programme, references to Kosovo in this document accordingly shall be understood to be in the context of Security Council resolution 1244 (1999);
For the European Union, this designation used is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UN Security Council resolution 1244/99 and the International Court of Justice Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.

About

About

This year’s high-level international conference, now in its 20th year, offers a key moment to debate the future of the Balkans and explore new ideas and approaches in the presence of an audience of over two hundred people, including EU and national policymakers, government officials, representatives from business and international organisations as well as leading academics and journalists.

EU relations with the Western Balkans are in a state of flux. The year kicked off on an upbeat note with the Prespa Agreement establishing the Republic of North Macedonia, sparking hopes that there could be other new beginnings in the region. However, the unexpected EU decision to delay accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia has disappointed the two countries, prompted concern in the Western Balkans and worried EU states who fear a further loss of European clout and influence in the region. The non-Paper recently published by France this month on reforming the EU accession process highlighted a will among some member states to reform accession criteria before moving on to the next stage.

  • What would be the elements of a new narrative which would help to overcome « accession fatigue » in the region caused by long, complicated and bureaucratic interactions between the EU and the Balkans?
  • How is the EU encouraging the inclusion of youth and women in the Western Balkans labour market?
  • Can digitalisation enhance employment opportunities for women and young people, including through facilitating tech start-ups?
  • How can the EU and international organisations enhance reconciliation both at the governmental and societal level?

* For the United Nations Development Programme, references to Kosovo in this document accordingly shall be understood to be in the context of Security Council resolution 1244 (1999);
For the European Union, this designation used is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UN Security Council resolution 1244/99 and the International Court of Justice Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.


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PHOTO CREDIT: Flickr/Western Balkans Summit 2019

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Schedule

Schedule

Welcome coffee and registration of participants
Opening session – A dance without partners? Between disappointment, despair and hope Expand Opening session – A dance without partners? Between disappointment, despair and hope

EU relations with the Western Balkans are in a state of flux. The year kicked off on an upbeat note with the Prespa Agreement establishing the Republic of North Macedonia, sparking hopes that there could be other new beginnings in the region. However, the unexpected EU decision to delay accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia has disappointed the two countries, prompted concern in the Western Balkans and worried EU states who fear a further loss of European clout and influence in the region. While EU membership talks are continuing with Serbia and Montenegro efforts to promote a normalisation of Serbia-Kosovo* relations have still to produce results’. All eyes are now on the 2020 Croatian EU Council Presidency which has promised to put the Western Balkans higher on the EU agenda. As one of the newest EU member states – and the first Balkan country to chair the EU – Zagreb, working with a new EU Parliament and Commission,  can hopefully lift the mood and inject new momentum in EU relations.

  • How can the Croatian presidency really act as a catalyst to accelerate negotiations on EU membership of Balkan states ?
  • With accession talks now on hold, are there other ways in which the EU can remain a strong actor in the Western Balkans?
  • What would be the elements of a new narrative which would help to overcome ‘accession fatigue’ in the region caused by long, complicated and bureaucratic interactions between the EU and the Balkans ?

* For the United Nations Development Programme, references to Kosovo in this document accordingly shall be understood to be in the context of Security Council resolution 1244 (1999);
For the European Union, this designation used is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UN Security Council resolution 1244/99 and the International Court of Justice Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.

Speakers

Majlinda Bregu

Secretary-General of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC)

Josip Brkić

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Christian Danielsson

European Commission Director-General for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement

Marko Pavić

Minister of Regional Development and EU Funds for Croatia, 2019 European Young Leader

Hashim Thaçi

President of Kosovo*

Moderator

Shada Islam

Director of Europe and Geopolitics at Friends of Europe

Coffee break
Parallel roundtable 1 – Women, millennials and the labour market Expand Parallel roundtable 1 – Women, millennials and the labour market

Countries in the Western Balkans can take pride in their young and talented population, including very qualified women. But many in the region are emigrating because of economic challenges including lack of employment opportunities. The low representation of women in the labour market remains a key challenge: almost 60% of women are unemployed. Although labour market reforms and up-to-date social policies are gaining space on policy agendas in the Western Balkans, enhancing job opportunities for millennials and women remains an essential condition to boost the region’s economic performance.

  • How is the EU encouraging the inclusion of youth and women in the Western Balkans labour market?
  • What measures can the region’s governments take to effectively counter the ‘brain-drain’?
  • Does the education system in Western Balkans countries prepare youth for the challenges of the modern labour market?

Speakers

Nicole Farnsworth

Programme Director and Lead Researcher at the Kosovo Women's Network

Rudina Hajdari

Member of the Albanian Parliament

Agi Veres

Deputy Regional Director of the UNDP Regional Bureau for Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)

Moderator

Shada Islam

Director of Europe and Geopolitics at Friends of Europe

Parallel roundtable 2 – Digital transformation Expand Parallel roundtable 2 – Digital transformation

The EU Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans, launched in 2018, aims to support digital transformation and enhance the transition towards a digital economy. Digitalisation has the potential to allow national governments to address some of the structural economic and social difficulties the region faces; it could enhance job opportunities for women and young people, enable regional companies’ accession to international markets, and promote reconciliation by increasing connectivity among citizens within the region. The Regional Roaming Agreement signed in Belgrade in April 2019, will accelerate regional digital integration especially, since for the first time, Albania and Kosovo* are included.

  • How are governments and international organisations in the Western Balkans promoting digitalisation connectivity?
  • Can digitalisation enhance employment opportunities for women and young people, including through facilitating tech start-ups?
  • As digitalisation facilitates communication, should it be considered as a tool for reconciliation? How can it be used?

* For the United Nations Development Programme, references to Kosovo in this document accordingly shall be understood to be in the context of Security Council resolution 1244 (1999);
For the European Union, this designation used is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UN Security Council resolution 1244/99 and the International Court of Justice Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.

Speakers

Velibor Bošković

Executive Director, Science Technology Park of Montenegro

Ulrike Damyanovic

Head of Western Balkans and Turkey Unit at the European Training Foundation (ETF)

Pierre Heilbronn

Vice-President of Policy and Partnerships at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD)

David Ringrose

Head of International Affairs at the European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology (DG CONNECT)

Moderator

Joe Litobarski

Editor at Debating Europe

Coffee break
Closing session – The challenge of reconciliation Expand Closing session – The challenge of reconciliation

Twenty years after the end of the Yugoslav Wars, the need for reconciliation between cultures and ethnicities in the Western Balkans remains imperative. Although the Prespa Agreement signed by Athens and Skopje sets an example for state level reconciliation efforts, tensions remain among other governments in the region. While reconciliation efforts at the governmental level can be difficult to achieve, there are many peace initiatives at the local level and driven by civil society organisations which offer another route to reconciliation. Several organisations and initiatives in the Western Balkans are also exploring the ‘reconciliation power’ of art and culture, believing that shared interests in art, culture, language, sports, and other non-political topics can contribute to building stronger ties between groups and boost long-term and inclusive peacebuilding processes. The Cultural Diplomacy Platform (CDP), set up by the EU in cooperation with several European cultural organisations, is one such example.

  • How can the EU and international organisations enhance reconciliation both at the governmental and societal level?
  • What can governments do to empower these social led peace initiatives?
  • Should the EU invest more in civil society reconciliation and not only focus on economic and political measures?

Spotlight on the role of arts
LambdaLambdaLambda is the first international gallery for contemporary art in Pristina. Its aim is to provide artists and the audience with an intimate and informal environment conducive to experimentation, discussion and learning, especially by bringing together international and local artists.

A conversation with

Isabella Ritter

Co-Founder of LambdaLambdaLambda, Pristina and Brussels

The policy perspective

A debate with

Tanja Fajon

Chair of the European Parliament Delegation to the EU-Serbia Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee and Trustee of Friends of Europe

Zoran Jolevski

Former minister of defence and ambassador of the Republic of North Macedonia to the United States and chief negotiator in the Macedonian naming dispute with Greece

Zvezdana Kovač

Executive Director of the Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe (CRDSEE)

Velma Šarić

Founder and President of the Post-Conflict Research Center (PCRC)

Moderator

Shada Islam

Director of Europe and Geopolitics at Friends of Europe

Speakers

Speakers

Photo of Velibor Bošković
Velibor Bošković

Executive Director, Science Technology Park of Montenegro

Show more information on Velibor Bošković

The co-founder of two companies on economic consulting and pharmaceuticals, Boskovic has extensive experience in the NGO, private and government sectors as well as at the University of Montenegro. He was recently appointed by the Government of Montenegro as acting director of the first science and technology park in the country. Prior to his current post, Boskovik was the director of the entrepreneurship and innovation centre “Technopolis” and General Director of the biggest football club in Montenegro “Buducnost”.

Photo of 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 (2005-2017). 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 Minister of European Integration and as 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.

Josip Brkić
Josip Brkić

Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Show more information on Josip Brkić

Josip Brkić’s career spans two decades, holding positions in the public sector in Bosnia and Herzegovina, including in the Ministry of European Integration and as Ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Spain and Morocco. Brkić also has extensive experience in the private sector as director of a Sarajevo firm Talgo BH and as the head secretary of the Herzegovina University. In his current position he chairs the Commission for the NATO-integration process of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Photo of Christian Danielsson
Christian Danielsson

European Commission Director-General for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement

Show more information on Christian Danielsson

A Swedish diplomat with over 20 years of experience at the European Commission, Christian Danielsson has held several key positions alongside Commissioners, Vice-Presidents and in the Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations, where he currently serves as Director-General. In this capacity, he leads the Commission team in guiding the Western Balkans in the implementation of important reforms, including judicial systems and corruption. Danielsson is an important player in the EU enlargement process, having previously managed and coordinated the accession process of Croatia, the Republic of Macedonia and Turkey.

Ulrike Damyanovic
Ulrike Damyanovic

Head of Western Balkans and Turkey Unit at the European Training Foundation (ETF)

Show more information on Ulrike Damyanovic

Ulrike Damyanovic has worked in the Balkans for over two decades, including in multi-country interventions for the modernisation of education and labour market systems. At the ETF, she currently coordinates the organisation’s activities in the Western Balkans and helps support the implementation of the European Union’s enlargement and digital agendas. Damyanovic has developed training programmes aimed at delivering young people the right skills in a challenging socio-economic environment, placing special emphasis on creating an inclusive society.

Photo of Tanja Fajon
Tanja Fajon

Chair of the European Parliament Delegation to the EU-Serbia Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee and Trustee of Friends of Europe

Show more information on Tanja Fajon

A politician and journalist, Tanja Fajon is currently serving as Member of the European Parliament. A passionate advocate of freedom of movement and its economic benefits, Fajon was previously the European Parliament rapporteur on the visa liberalisation process for the Western Balkans. In this position, she was instrumental in helping Albania as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina win the right to visa-free travel to Europe. In 2016, Slovenian opinion polls showed her to be highly visible and one of the most popular political figures in the country.

Photo of Nicole Farnsworth
Nicole Farnsworth

Programme Director and Lead Researcher at the Kosovo Women's Network

Show more information on Nicole Farnsworth

Nicole Farnsworth leads research teams and co-authors reports at Kosovo Women’s’ Network, a network that advocates on behalf of women of all ethnic groups in Kosovo* at the local, regional and international level. Originally from the US, Farnsworth has been living and working in Kosovo* for 16 years, primarily with local civil society organisations. A sociologist, researcher and gender equality activist, she has written several influential reports on gender equality, gender-based violence, gender-responsive budgeting and integrating a gender perspective in the EU Accession process. Farnsworth is the Team Leader for an EU-funded Action to ‘Empower CSOs in Combatting Discrimination and Furthering Women’s Labour Rights’, implemented by a coalition of six women’s rights groups in the Western Balkans.

Photo of Rudina Hajdari
Rudina Hajdari

Member of the Albanian Parliament

Show more information on Rudina Hajdari

Rudina Hajdari is an Albanian politician who has represented Albania’s capital city, Tirana for two years in the national parliament. Hajdari also holds the position of Head of the Opposition and sits on the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Committee on European Affairs within the Parliament of Albania. Her involvement in politics follows two years of experience at the United States House of Representatives, including on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Pierre Heilbronn
Pierre Heilbronn

Vice-President of Policy and Partnerships at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD)

Show more information on Pierre Heilbronn

Pierre Heilbronn has 20 years of policymaking experience in domestic, European and global contexts. At the EBDR he is responsible for the formulation, communication, coordination and implementation of the Bank’s country and sector strategies, the Bank’s policy engagement, technical cooperation assignments, and initiatives upholding and supporting the Bank’s transition mandate. Before joining the EBRD, he was deputy chief of staff for France’s Minister of Economy and Finance. He has also served as the European advisor to the French Prime Minister and assisted in the creation of the European External Action Service.

Photo of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Director of Europe and Geopolitics at Friends of Europe

Show more information on Shada Islam

Shada Islam is responsible for policy oversight of Friends of Europe’s initiatives, activities and publications, in the areas of the Future of Europe, Migration, the Asia Programme and the Development Policy Forum. Shada is Visiting Professor at the College of Europe (Natolin) where she teaches Asia-Europe relations and has been selected as a fellow by the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). Named as one of the twenty most influential women in Brussels by Politico, Shada is also one of the authors of Friends of Europe’s ‘Frankly Speaking’ commentary and is sought after as a speaker, commentator and moderator at high-level European and global events. Shada is the former Europe correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and has previously worked on Asian and migration issues at the European Policy Centre.

Photo of Zoran Jolevski
Zoran Jolevski

Former minister of defence and ambassador of the Republic of North Macedonia to the United States and chief negotiator in the Macedonian naming dispute with Greece

Show more information on Zoran Jolevski

Zoran Jolevski is a senior North Macedonian diplomat with over 20 years of experience in public affairs and foreign service. As the Ambassador to the United States, he helped secure American support for the accession of North Macedonia to NATO. In 2008, Jolevski was appointed to lead the negotiations on the naming dispute with Greece. Holding a PhD in International Economy from Saints Cyril and Methodius University of Skopje, Jolevski has also published widely on the subject of international trade.

Photo of Zvezdana Kovač
Zvezdana Kovač

Executive Director of the Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe (CRDSEE)

Show more information on Zvezdana Kovač

Zvezdana Kovač has over 20 years of experience in journalism, television and editing. Originally from Montenegro, Kovac worked in project management in the Greek NGO sector prior to joining CDRSEE – a non-profit NGO which aspires to foster pluralism and democracy in Southeastern Europe through seminars, publications, conferences, research projects, exchange programmes and opinion polls. Before being named Executive Director, Kovač was the project manager for CRDSEE’s Joint History Project in Montenegro, aiming to shift the approach to history courses in Balkan schools.

Photo of Joe Litobarski
Joe Litobarski

Editor at Debating Europe

Show more information on Joe Litobarski

Joe is the Editor of Debating Europe. He has been active in the EU blogosphere since 2008. Before starting work for Friends of Europe in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in the UK and Brussels, and edited BlogActiv.eu, a dedicated EU blogging platform. A part of Friends of Europe, Debating Europe is a successful online discussion platform based on a simple model: citizens ask questions, policymakers and experts respond. Since launching, it has built a 4.5 million strong community of citizens and a social media following of over 280,000 people from across Europe.

Marko Pavić
Marko Pavić

Minister of Regional Development and EU Funds for Croatia, 2019 European Young Leader

Show more information on Marko Pavić

Having previously held the position of Minister for Labour and Pension Scheme, Marko Pavić is now in charge of EU funds for Croatia. Before entering the world of politics, Pavić dedicated his time to physics and oceanography. After finishing his studies, he travelled to Antarctica to study climate change developments. Among the various high-level positions he has held over the years, Pavić has worked as an Independent consultant for EU project development and has been involved in numerous organisational and educational development programmes.

David Ringrose
David Ringrose

Head of International Affairs at the European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology (DG CONNECT)

Show more information on David Ringrose

David Ringrose is a civil servant with a career that spans nearly three decades in the European Commission. In his current portfolio, he coordinates DG CONNECT’s policy and regulatory dialogues with partner and external countries. Ringrose promotes the systematic integration of digital policies and tools into the EU’s foreign relations. He has held a series of posts dealing with the former Soviet Union and worked on the fifth enlargement of the European Union from 1997 to 2003, both in Brussels and Prague, coordinating the EU’s communication strategy in the candidate countries.

Photo of Velma Šarić
Velma Šarić

Founder and President of the Post-Conflict Research Center (PCRC)

Show more information on Velma Šarić

Velma Šarić is an internationally-renowned investigative journalist and researcher, having authored over 300 reports based on proceedings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). As the Founder and President PCRC, a Sarajevo-based peacebuilding organisation which works to promote sustainable peace in the Balkans, Šarić has founded Balkan Diskurs, an online platform with over 100,000 members that challenges stereotypes and promotes new views on Balkan society and culture. Working through the PCRC and with the United Nations Office of the Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, she has contributed to strengthening early-warning capacities across the Balkans.

Hashim Thaci
Hasim Thaçi

President of Kosovo*

Show more information on Hasim Thaçi

Hasim Thaçi was elected President following 20 years of involvement with politics of the country. Thaçi has previously served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister of Kosovo* over the course of two mandates. He chaired the Government of Kosovo* which declared Kosovo* an independent state, and also led the Kosovar team in the Rambouillet negotiations. He was the Political Chief of the Kosovo Liberation Army during the war in 1997-1999. Thaçi led the dialogue between Kosovo* and Serbia, which resulted with the Agreement on Normalization of Relations. As a result of these efforts he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Photo of Agi Veres
Agi Veres

Deputy Regional Director of the UNDP Regional Bureau for Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)

Show more information on Agi Veres

Agi Veres currently leads the UNDP Istanbul Regional Hub, supporting 17 countries and one territory to deliver on achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals in the region. Veres has been working for UNDP since 2002 in various capacities at headquarters, regional and country levels. Prior to her appointment as Resident Representative of the UNDP in China, she was the Deputy Resident Representative of UNDP in Lesotho, and Deputy of the Bratislava Regional Centre for Europe and the CIS.

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