Plans for the Regional Economic Area move forward

Photo: European Commission

The Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) and the Western Balkans Chamber Investment Forum (CIF) have organised the meeting of the RCC’s Multi-Action Plan coordinators in Brussels, the first one following the conclusion of the Trieste Western Balkans Summit, during which the Multi-Action Plan for a Regional Economic Area in the Western Balkans 6 (WB6) was endorsed.

The meeting, which was held on October 31, envisaged that the full implementation of the Action plan and the formation of the regional economic area would begin in 2023.

“All this should encourage those who may be skeptical in the EU to consider how much government efforts have been made and how many steps they are making towards the accession process. This is part of the accession process through the improvement of regional potential in trade, production, education, investment and implementation of digital technology in public administration reform”, said Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council, Goran Svilanović.

“With such integration, no-one is drifting away from the EU or their individual EU accession processes. The economies of the region are being strengthened as to accelerate the accession into the EU”, noted Emir Đikić, CEFTA Secretariat Director.

Đikić added that some measures from the Action Plan had already begun to be implemented, which would give a rapid effect on the economies of the WB6, Radio-television of Vojvodina writes.

The Action plan, adopted on 12 July, consists of four dimensions: trade, investment, mobility and digital market.

When it comes to trade, the parties agreed, among other things, to put more effort in order to successfully implement CEFTA additional protocols on trade facilitation, deepen the collaboration in the areas of dispute settlement, liberalisation of trade in services, electronic commerce.

On investment, “WB6 are committed to design and implement a regional investment reform agenda which will lead to greater harmonisation of regional investment policies aligned with the EU and international standards and best practices, and will provide significant new opportunities for the private sector”, according to the action plan.

On mobility, the parties agreed to remove obstacles to the mobility of professionals, highly qualified workforce and students, researchers, and academics.

Digital integration implies, among other things, digital infrastructure development and improved regional connectivity, coordinated roaming policies towards a roaming free region, enhanced cybersecurity, data protection, and cooperation in policies that stimulate data economy.

The agreement on Regional economic cooperation area, a mere supplement of the CEFTA agreement, came as a response to the objections raised by some of the members of the WB6.

For instance, the government of Kosovo has heavily criticized the initial plan of the formation of the customs union, advocated by the EU and supported largely by Serbia. According to the Kosovo officials, the envisaged project would pose a threat to Kosovo’s weak economy. Namely, Kosovo depends heavily on customs revenues to fill the gaps in its budget.

Some have also raised their concerns that a new customs union would have unwanted implications for the region’s integration prospects, Politico writes.

“In some countries, they worried this would be a substitute for the EU, or that it would be a reconstruction of Yugoslavia,” Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić told Politico. He added that, on the contrary, a regional economic area was “something which everyone could agree on”.

“We should not take the EU for granted, but they should not take for granted our commitment to EU,” Srđan Darmanović, Montenegro’s foreign minister commented, as reported by Politico.

Reporting on the issue, German national daily, Die Welt, writes that “a Balkan customs union attached to Brussels could be an emergency solution (…) an instrument to defuse the eternal powder keg of the Balkans without having to expand the EU.”

The customs union, initiated earlier this year, was aimed at integrating weak economies of the Western Balkan countries, thus fostering the development and stability of the whole region in the wake of the unstable inter-state relations and the concerning Russian influence in the region.

On the other hand, the economic area will mostly focus on a prompter implementation of the existing obligations stemming from the Central European Free Trade Area (CEFTA), which all the members of WB6 are part of.