“Our region should follow the example of the EU and continue working on strengthening and intensifying mutual economic synergies, as a part of economic recovery”, says Deputy Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council Tanja Miščević for EWB. In her opinion, despite multiple headlines claiming otherwise, the European Union remains the biggest partner of the Western Balkans in this crisis as well.

We talked with Professor Tanja Miščević, who was also Chief of the Team for EU Accession Negotiations of the Government of Serbia from 2013 to 2019, about the priorities of regional cooperation at the time of the pandemic, economic recovery plans and cooperation between RCC and the governments of the region, as well as the support the EU has provided for the Western Balkans.

European Western Balkans: What have been the priorities of Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) over the last weeks and months in terms of the pandemic and its consequences? 

Tanja Miščević: The pandemic, and we can now say it, has changed many things, and its actual extent will be known in few months. It is clear that we all need to regroup and adjust our plans and activities to the new situation.

Once the crisis is over, the entire world, and thus the region too, will have to focus strongly on economic recovery. We at the RCC have already started gathering data and developing plans within our mandate to support our region and help all its citizens.

There are almost 350,000 companies in the region, of which 99.7% are small and medium-sized. Before the pandemic the economic growth of the region was forecasted at between 3.1% and 3.6% and at the moment the World Bank forecasts the growth to drop between -1.1% and -3.8%, which practically means no growth at all.

The pandemic showed that regional cooperation has no alternative and the RCC will continue to work on strengthening it, taking account of “whatever is on the table”, to put it like this, after the crisis is over. This is our priority. New challenges compel us to adapt our work while focusing on regional cooperation, solidarity, connectivity, improving labour skills and economic recovery. Also, we will work together on fighting climate changes, digital connectivity, Roma integration, and strengthening regional tourism industry, which perhaps suffered the biggest economic blow ever.

The European Union, the powerful anchor and ally of the region, works to strengthen a single market as its best tool to emerge from the unprecedented crises caused by corona virus. Our region should follow its example and continue working on strengthening and intensifying mutual economic synergies which should be an integral part of economic recovery strategy after the pandemic.

In short, each initiative aimed at strengthening Western Balkans is welcome.

EWB: One of the initiatives the RCC has been engaged in since the onset of pandemic is establishment of the so-called Green Corridor between the WB countries and the EU. What does this initiative involve and where does it stand in terms of implementation?

TM: If someone had told us couple of months ago that we will have to deal with green corridors for unhindered flow of food, medicines and medical equipment within our region, and between the region and the EU, we would have said it to be impossible. And again, here we are today, witnessing it. I am glad that we had a good idea, one that all WB economies were on board with, and the one we, together with them and Transport Community and CEFTA Secretariats, with wholehearted support by the European Union, implemented in practice. Our region has 18 external and 14 mutual border crossings. According to the data we have, 82% of trucks use border crossings that are part of the Green Corridor. Since last week, the system for pre-arrival and exchange of information about priority goods has become operational. The corridors are now functional, waiting time is not long, between 5 and 60 minutes, and citizens can now have peace of mind. This is our satisfaction.

EWB: To what extent does COVID-19 pandemic, and related precautionary measures imposed, limit regional cooperation in Western Balkans and how much room is there to further develop the cooperation and strengthen regional solidarity?

TM: Just as the entire world, we too were taken aback by the pandemic. Caught off guard. But I think we came around quite quickly and started adapting. Our daily life now includes teleworking and online meetings. It is not easy to joggle between your household, measures we need to observe and work, but where there is a will there is a way.

And there is a will. Last year, with all obstacles, we managed to contribute to have everyone from the region sign the new Regional Roaming Agreement and thus paved the way to reduce roaming charges. This was in July last year and I hope that next year we will have roaming-free Western Balkans. The Green Corridors are just the latest example that regional cooperation delivers, and does so in a short time when there is political willingness in the region.

Of course, there were exceptions. At the Poznan Summit last July, the region missed a chance to agree on mutual recognition of qualifications for doctors of medicine, dentists, architects and civil engineers, which is part of the Multi-annual Action Plan for a Regional Economic Area (MAP REA). MAP REA was endorsed by Prime Ministers of all WB economies in 2017. If an agreement had been reached in Poznan, now, for example, it would be possible for doctors to move unhindered throughout the region to where their presence is most needed.

This is, in fact, a lesson learned that we must not miss on opportunities to strengthen regional cooperation. Strengthening cooperation means strengthening our individual economies and working to improve citizen’s living standards. And that is most precious: people and their lives.

EWB: At the 2017 WB Summit in Trieste the Multi-annual Action Plan for a Regional Economic Area (MAP REA) was adopted and it includes improving digital integration, trade, mobility and investments in the region. Given that RCC coordinated development of this plan and monitors its implementation together with CEFTA, how would you assess its thus far implementation by region’s governments?

TM: MAP REA envisaged several areas of region’s mutual interventions: trade, investments, digital integration and mobility. Substantial progress was made in each of them. For example, this year (we are not giving up hope!) Albania should host the third Western Balkans Digital Summit. Not even a year after MAP REA was adopted Skopje hosted the first WB Digital Summit, which has recorded huge success in terms of the number of participants from both political and economic sphere, and in particular representatives of the new generation of digital companies and start-ups. Last year, Digital Summit in Belgrade went a step further as the region realised the importance of using such an event to present progress of each economy, but also to exchange ideas and establish mutual cooperation, and find new market opportunities, where innovations feature prominently. However, Belgrade’s edition of regional digital summits will be remembered for signing the Regional Roaming Agreement, which we underlined before as the important milestone of our integration.

The region worked on other tasks as well, though not with the same zest. One of such tasks is the important issue of mutual recognition of professional qualifications. Implementation of many agreements, in these circumstances in particular, has been put on the back burner. The Regional Declaration on Roma Integration, which envisages greater care of basic, life’s issues of Roma population: employment, accommodation, health care, education, registration, etc., shares a similar destiny. We also worked on mutual recognition of academic qualifications and improvement of investments in which regard the framework Regional Investment Reform Agenda (RIRA) has been already adopted. All these are areas where we have truly made progress, but cannot leave it at that, because time requires changes and adjustments. Many priorities have changed and we are currently, together with our partners from the region, revising this and many other agendas. The basic criterion for making changes to the agendas is certainly the consequences of pandemic, to respond to a potential crisis in most appropriate way while regarding the EU integration process plans of each economy.

EWB: The projects implemented or still being implemented by RCC include employment, promotion of tourism in the region, and others. These are areas which will undoubtedly suffer serious consequences of the pandemic, and governments in the region, as those in the EU, have already prepared packages of economic measures to uphold jobs. Are you already considering how the RCC could adapt its activities to these issues and whether it is going to provide support in implementing and designing the policies aimed at recovery of region’s economies?

TM: Yes, tourism industry throughout the region has suffered perhaps the biggest blow, and its potential has just started to develop. For example, last year almost 12 million people visited the region and tourism revenues in this period are estimated to almost 7.2 billion euros. Considering that tourism contribution to region’s GDP is 10.2% and to export over 25%, and that on average 11.4% of total employees in WB are from tourism sector, the scale of pandemic in tourism becomes clearer, and also its overall impact on our economies and living standards.

The RCC implemented and EU funded Tourism Development Project has recently conducted a survey with tourism agencies and operators from the Western Balkans – the results obtained are not pretty. One in five booked trips to Western Balkans is cancelled, and consequently 42% of travel agencies and tour operators have already started to lay off their employees in order to cut the costs. Large majority of them (72%) expect support from their Government, while others rely on their own resources and loans. Almost half of them (41%) said to have enough resources to keep normal operations for only up to 3 months while as much as 20% of them have already stopped their operations.

More than half of tourism industry in the region considers this season lost, believing that improvement can only come next year. Loses are calculated in billion euros, and this means uncertain future for all those working in this sector and their families, which, to remind you, account for 11.4% of all Western Balkans citizens.

All of us together have to invest extraordinary efforts to bring back on track the industry which contributes enormously to our development. Before pandemic, tourism was the fastest growing industry branch and an ace up the region’s sleeve to catch up with the pace of the rest of Europe. We must not lose it.

The mandate of our employment project, which we are implementing with International Labour Organisation (ILO), and which is funded by the EU, is primarily focused on informal employment and policies to stimulate transition from informal to formal sector. Unfortunately, we have observed that it is in this sector that we actually face an avalanche of new numbers and indicators, pointing out to a growing trend of unemployed in the region. Employment Services in region’s economies still do not have an accurate picture of the scale of crisis, but judging by preliminary data and gradual increase in the number of unemployed, and despite limited work of services and movement of population, it is clear that the loses will be huge. Consequently, we are aware of the fact that we will have to adjust to the situation in the field, being attentive to the needs and priorities of our partners, in order to provide for least painful emergence from the crisis and economic and social recovery.

EWB: Over the past weeks, we could have gotten an impression from some media that the EU has not been sufficiently engaged in the region since the onset of pandemic. What is the current level of cooperation the RCC has with the EU institutions and how would you assess the level of support the EU has so far provided to the region?

TM: Despite some, and not so few, media headlines from the onset of pandemic, European Union is and continues to be strong support and assistance to the region, our best and most loyal partner.

We are probably irrational when looking at these things, but it is quite natural that being taken aback at the onset of pandemic, the EU MS sought the best solutions in the attempt to cope with this new situation. However, this phase was very short and we started getting help from the EU in medical equipment, medicines and respirators. It also supported us in establishing the Green Corridors for unhindered flow of goods. And finally, considerable funds will be additionally invested in the region to fight the pandemic and support the measures which are to help mitigate the crisis caused by the pandemic. This is more than 1.4 billion euros in financial assistance to the region: 700 million to fight the pandemic and for social and economic recovery. Moreover, just a couple of days ago, the European Commission approved EUR 3 billion macro-financial assistance package in a form of support loans for the Western Balkans and partner countries, those that expressed the need. The total amount designated for the economies of the region is around EUR 750 million and the funds are available to Albania (180 million), Bosnia and Herzegovina (250 million), Kosovo* (100 million), Montenegro (60 million) and North Macedonia (160 million).

One should by no means neglect the 800 million from the Solidarity Fund, which is open to Member States and to four economies from the region which have commenced the process of accession negotiations (Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia).

In addition to money, which you will agree to be substantial, each EU Delegation in the region assists in the field in whatever way is needed, from assistance in procurement of respirators, financing the costs of flights to deliver medical equipment and materials to micro projects in the field, to mention a few. Support and assistance is continues, persistent and unreserved.

EWB: Are there issues in RCC’s communication and cooperation with the WB Governments regarding the new initiatives?

TM: We do not have issues in communication with our partners in the region. Misunderstandings and hitches which may sometimes occur between some of them are naturally possible, and of political nature, but we all together try to ensure these do not impact the process of regional cooperation nor commitment to EU integration. On the other hand, circumstances we have been living and working in over the past two months indeed require mutual respect and sufficient space for each of us. We hold video conferences, consultations and talks with our partners from the region almost daily and I would like to share my impression with you that, despite difficult times, the manner of communication, readiness to cooperate and find solutions to the issues as quickly as possible are more present than in ‘normal’ circumstances.

In that regard, regional cooperation is not always a priority for the governments, but it is surely never neglected, because in these circumstances our mutual assistance and support, which we can provide to each other, is not only always welcome but is in fact the first aid in the crisis. And we are neighbours, we must not forget it.

I am not saying that it is not challenging to be an intermediary between conflicting positions, views and visions. Our region, rich in natural resources, is also rich in open bilateral issues and finding common ground is not an easy task. It can always be better and should be better. The point, however, is to find common interest, common goal – and undoubtedly this goal is to strengthen the economies and improve the life of our citizens by using our own resources, knowledge and capacities, with the support of EU integration process. Everyone agrees on this and when you have this agreement as a starting point then there is no motivation shortage.