BRUSSELS – The Western Balkans Summit “Western Balkans at a crossroads: new challenges, changing dynamics” was organised by the think tank Friends of Europe with the support of Konrad-Adenauer Foundation, European Commission, UN Development Programme and Regional Cooperation Council on December 5 in Brussels.
Three sessions were organized to talk about the future of the Western Balkans, specifically on peace, democracy and reconciliation, business outlooks, but also on local and regional developement.
The event was moderated by the Director of Europe and Geopolitics at Friends of Europe, Shada Islam.
The Western Balkan states are now clearly at a crossroads between EU accession and maintaining the status quo, it is not t clear which course these decision-makers will take.
Prime Minster of Albania, Edi Rama, opened the debate emphasizing on the importance of the EU for the Western Balkan countries. He stated that the EU integration process for the region remains an important driving force for the future.
“Without the EU we will never have reconciliation, peace and cooperation processes,” Rama explained, adding that the European Union has to open accession process with Albania
“The Western Balkan countries are in a much better shape than they were in the 1990s. However, now that we are in the best shape, the EU has problems” said Rama.
Albanian PM referred to the several alternatives to the EU including Russia and China. However, accession to the EU is more attractive for its rule of law and powerful institutions. But the EU should start its negotiation processes as soon as possible to avoid new risks, he said.
“In our region, we are multiethnic, multireligious. If the EU will not run to catch us, believe me, many ‘multi’ problems can restart and then it will be much more costly to marry us later” he said.
For the Managing Director for Europe and Central Asia at the European External Action Service (EEAS), Thomas Mayr Harting, the Balkan countries are still facing the heritage of the past, and the perspective of enlargement will be confirmed and reaffirmed in the upcoming months.
Talking about competitions between the EU, China, and Russia, he said that the dimensions the EU can offer is something that nobody else has.
The Assistant Secretary General and Regional Director for Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Ayse Cihan Sultanoglu, said that the Agenda 2030 can be a platform to bring communities together, rather than pulling them apart.
In this context of migrants flows and European crisis, we need to be able to build resilient societies that include policy cohesion and promote democracy. The Western Balkans need more transparency in their institutions, she said.
She also added that “equality is the biggest problem we are facing. If we do not have equality we are not able to achieve anything. We need more equality inside each country and between countries.”
Both the Special Envoy for the Western Balkans Process, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Italy, Michele Giacomelli, and the Senior Development Advisor, United States European Command (EUCOM) Andrew Plitt, stressed on the necessity of results for people and the importance of new opportunities for younger generations, as it was discussed in the Trieste Summit.
Moreover, according to Giacomelli, “the fights against terrorism, organized crime and illegal migrations are challenges we can only face together.”
The European Commission Director-General for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Christian Danielsson, stated that the EU is ready to support other reforms.
“We have seen positive changes in the last couple of years but there are still several challenges that persist in the region especially high unemployment.”
He added that there is a big commitment among the Western Balkan leaders and that they need a further effort and engagement which is the regional cooperation.
According to Danielsson, the Regional Economic Area is a powerful engine to create jobs and to increase economic growth. It is not an alternative to the EU enlargement but a necessary step.
As stated by the Executive Director at Transparency International, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Lejla Ibranović, corruption is one of the biggest obstacles for businesses across all the Balkan countries.
“We need stronger institutions, transparency, depoliticization and accountability of public administration,” she said,
The Chief Executive Officer of Bizbook.ba, an online business platform for companies primarily focused on economics, Erna Šoševic, said that the entrepreneurs rather than the government should lead the way to the future.
“Our government needs to realize that our bigger resources are human minds.”
The Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), Goran Svilanovic, said that the main step for the integration is about free trade in services and harmonisation of policies. He explained that the Western Balkans especially need free movements, recognition of diplomas and standardize professions.
“We cannot have economic integration without reconciliation.”