Interview with Majlinda Bregu, the next Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council (from January 2019) and former Minister of European Integration of Albania. The interview was done during the Belgrade Security Forum 2018, where Bregu was one of the speakers.

European Western Balkans: This year you participated in the Belgrade Security Forum’s session “Why More Women?” supported by the Swedish Institute and Canada Fund. You will be the first woman chairing one of the regional initiatives in South East Europe, and in the session, you mentioned a difference between leadership and “chair-ship”. Let’s then start with the simple question – are you a leader? 

Maljinda Bregu:  The test could be a simple question: How do people I work with feel? If one would desire to place oneself as a leader, maybe it is better to show a stronger will to let others reveal their very best.

EWB: What do you see as most important challenges of regional cooperation?

MB: I would list a lot, but stability comes first. In line with that, I would also add keeping alive the intertwined approach of EU integration and regional development and replacing the concept of ethnic nationalism with a good practice of regional cooperation and healthy competition.

Secondly, economic development. Despite the pick up in growth in the last years, to quote the World Bank, the growth is higher, but still fragile. The Western Balkan countries are not yet viable, competitive market economies. Energy projects, infrastructure improvement, upscaling the digital skills, mobility, turning the region in an investment destination etc. are crucial for a sustainable development.

“It’s unbelievable that women constitute roughly 60% of all inactive working age population in the region. That means there is a big problem with the labour market dynamics in the region”

Speaking of other challenges, I would very much like to see some better interconnection and collaboration between municipalities. The role of local governments in South East Europe has evolved, but there is a room for a win-win strategy on concrete programs. Not only on cultural events, but sharing the good experiences, building bridges and helping each other. Council of Europe is interested in that, and there are other regional initiatives funded by EU.

Not to forget the big challenge of bringing more women to the labour market and accessing justice. Despite the progress in promoting gender equality in the labour market, women still face barriers to accessing adequate employment. It’s unbelievable that women constitute roughly 60% of all inactive working age population in the region. That means there is a big problem with the labour market dynamics in the region. It is a shameful loss of human capital and economic boost.

EWB: There are several regional initiatives, including the Berlin Process, but it seems that actual progress is very slow and often citizens find it hard to see concrete benefits on any of these initiatives. What should we do to improve this?

MB: The Berlin Process has brought in a new dimension for the region. New ideas such as connectivity are launched. The political dialogue among WB leaders has improved, for the first time all 6 political leaders sat, discussed and agreed on regional projects. Still, some interstate issues remain unsolved. Civil society is an added value to the process, since it helps stepping out of the traditional behaviour patterns in our societies and offering an independent non–governmental contribution.

Berlin Process has really refreshed the process of regional cooperation under the terms of, as you said, not only of economic development, but also group projects and infrastructure development and even reconciliation, which is high on the list of priorities and a lot of what region is talking about. But, all of us would like to see those 11 transport infrastructure and projects, part of the fourth connectivity agenda package, becoming a reality very soon. We would all like to shorten our journeys by hitting the motorway Niš-Pristina-Durrës or the “Peace Highway”, or to notice the 30-million Euro investments in broadband rollouts across the region. We would also like to see that the fully functional Regional economic area.

But to reap up the full benefits, we need Brussels and EU member states to increase financial means for pre-membership, as well as deep, serious structural reforms from our side.

“A stronger, more secure, more developed region before membership is a safer, Europeanised region”

This should not be seen only as a matter of giving some money to some countries and to the region, because it is not a rich one. The whole region’s GDP per capita is only about one third that of EU’s average. It should be a win-win game. A stronger, more secure, more developed region before membership is a safer, Europeanised region. As Commissioner Hahn said, there will be  “no discount” on the membership criteria. So, it is better to make our everyday work count.

EWB: You were Minister for European Integration and Chair of the Committee of European integration in the Parliament. How do you see European perspective of the Western Balkans after the Strategy of European Commission, President Macron’s speech in EP, and after Albania and Macedonia didn’t open their negotiations for EU accession?

MB: I see it as quite difficult, but also as a generational task that should be fulfilled. Western Balkans can’t stay forever in a loose waiting line for the membership. Frankly, I don’t think that business as usual provides stability and europeanisation in the Western Balkans. The status quo breeds instability, exposing the region to an unconstructive influence of other geopolitical actors even more. “Marrying” the accession tools with economic ambition, political clarity, as well as willingness, might be a good formula.

“I don’t think that business as usual provides stability and europeanisation in the Western Balkans. The status quo breeds instability, exposing the region to an unconstructive influence of other geopolitical actors”

Next year, we should be ready for some other changes due to the elections. Politically speaking, we are not fully aware today to what degree the anti-European populist approach will be “successful” in influencing the narrative on European enlargement. We can only wish they will not grow in power and influence.

That is why I think we should insist on being more Europeanised, than putting energy in the calendar. That is a bet that we cannot win. It is not our venture whether the membership is going to happen in 2025 or 2030. Our bet is to improve the standards and our way of living, to implement those values that make the region a better place to live.

EWB: Which are in your opinion the most significant challenges for the Western Balkan countries beside the rule of law?

MB: It is the fight against the organised crime which overpasses all the borders. Organised crime moves quicker than government reforms do. It is the fight against corruption that is making real politics lose terrain and be considered a problem instead of the solution.

You mentioned the rule of law and we all know that judiciary reform is the top priority. Then, there are the issues of media freedom, of human and minority rights, of stronger civil society that is not coerced by politics.

EWB: But, do you think that our leaders desire Europeanisation of our countries and European integration, or are they just ticking the boxes?

MB: As I said, if you speak of European membership in terms of dates and as a technical process, this is hardly something that might make politicians win votes. If we commit to the best European standards, quality of life, independent judiciary and institutions, good environmental standards, healthcare, services, media freedom etc, it makes a difference to the electorate.

I know by experience that a long road home – which EU membership process is – makes it difficult to be a happy and enthusiastic politician. If European standards are a fence to overpass, let it be. Good fences make good politics.

EWB: What should citizens of the Western Balkans excpect from you as the chair of RCC?

MB: My strong personal commitment to do my best in order move the regional cooperation agenda forward.