Goran Svilanović is Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC)
The recently published EU Strategy for the Western Balkans is great news and encouragement for all parties involved. After a rather long period of enlargement fatigue and unclear regional EU perspective, the new Strategy brings forward a fresh opportunity.
The EU Strategy provides an indicative timeframe for Serbia and Montenegro as the accession front-runners, suggesting the year 2025 as a potential ‘accession’ year. This could be additional impetus for the region, especially given that EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, during his Tour de Balkans, said that 2025 is open to all candidates, provided they meet the criteria for membership.
And there lies the core of the Strategy, which treats all the Western Balkan Six (WB6) economies comprehensively. It is not a secret that not all EU member states are equally eager to have new members joining ‒ definitely not given the current state of some of the Western Balkans. Thus, we have to move decisively with the reforms while promoting the region to our European relatives.
Besides the ‘horizon’ the Strategy sets, it gives a lot of manoeuvring room for the Western Balkans’ economies. There are explicit areas in which reforms must be done. The Commission expects serious candidates to effectively tackle the rule of law and public administration reforms, followed by economic reforms including dealing with structural weaknesses, low competitiveness and high unemployment rates.
The Commission is on a quest to make the Union stronger ‒ institutionally and financially ‒ and cannot afford new members weakening it. There is willingness and readiness to extend the EU family, but the Strategy undoubtedly tosses the ‘ball’ into the regions’ yard. The Union sees the benefits – geostrategic, political, security and economic – of integrating the Western Balkans, reinforcing enlargement-positive communication targeted towards EU members, to prepare grounds for welcoming the new ones, when the time comes.
The strategy illustrates its seriousness by underlining ‘word and deed’ and ‘merit-based’ concepts for the region
It is now up to the Western Balkan leaders to assume full responsibility and make this historical opportunity a reality. The perspective of individual economies depends solely on strong political will and determination to deliver tangible results but also to find lasting solutions to disputes with neighbours.
The Strategy including “a credible enlargement perspective” contains the clearest messages until now ‒ the unequivocal EU perspective of the Western Balkans. Still, the strategy illustrates its seriousness by underlining ‘word and deed’ and ‘merit-based’ concepts for the region. The undertaken commitments have to be followed through and the results must speak for themselves. So the ‘horizon’ tempo can be either overtaken or slowed down, as per merits.
The European Commission should now set an example by operationalising the Action Plan in support of the transformation of the Western Balkans and its six concrete flagship initiatives. Our region is eagerly waiting establishment of the coordination group, the purpose of which is to ensure implementation of these initiatives due this spring.
The Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), together with the region’s leaders, has already heavily embarked on this results-generating mission. SEE 2020 Strategy, modelled on the EU 2020 one, developed by RCC and adopted by Western Balkan Ministers back in 2013, is in its final stage of implementation – consultations on the programming of actions for period 2018-2020 are being finalised and new realities and achievable goals are identified. In many areas the results are encouraging and we believe this trend will continue. For example, the 2017 SEE 2020 Annual Implementation Report marks improvements in many areas: the number of jobs in the Western Balkan economies has increased by almost 400,000 in the past five years, with encouraging progress recorded on employment rate ‒ for age group 20-64-year-olds – currently at 57% of the SEE 2020 target. The region also far exceeded SEE 2020 trade balance target, scoring 192% of the target.
Simply put, it is “action time” for the Western Balkans
At the same time, the Berlin process, an EU-led enlargement initiative, resulted in the current focus of RCC’s work: Multi-Annual Action Plan on Regional Economic Area (MAP REA) in the Western Balkans Six, agreed on by the WB6 Prime Ministers in Trieste 2017. This EU enlargement Strategy duly recognises central role of RCC in enhancing regional cooperation and delivering on MAP REA.
Parts of the EU Strategy’s Action Plan are exactly what we have already been doing, especially in the digital integration segment. For example, preparations of an ambitious high-level WB6 Digital Summit, co-organised by the region’s governments, the European Commission and the German Federal government, are well underway. This Summit, held in Skopje on 18-19 April, will tackle practical and strategic issues, from lowering international roaming costs and integrating the Western Balkans in a number of EU digital initiatives to public administration reform through digitalisation.
MAP REA also foresees the implementation of a regional investment reform agenda, joint regional investment promotion efforts and enabled mobility of the region’s researchers, students, academics and professionals, among others. All of these activities are part of the same EU-enlargement package, as they are part of the comprehensive reforms that the Western Balkan economies must undertake to meet the EU accession requirements. RCC will continue working to strengthen regional cooperation, as it is the ‘backbone’ of the EU-advancement process.
It is hard work ahead of us: the region needs to show stamina and dedication ‒ and most importantly results ‒ in pursuing its goal. It will not be left alone on this voyage, as the EU will make its financial and technical instruments available to support the transformation.
Simply put, it is “action time” for the Western Balkans.
IMAGE CREDIT: European Parliament/Flickr