European Western Balkans

[EWB Interview] Bregu: Western Balkans can not lose another decade marked with new instabilities

Majlinda Bregu; Photo: Tanjug

The regional initiative “Green Corridors” enabled the smooth flow of goods in the most critical phase of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) by stabilizing the flow of goods in the Western Balkans region, which significantly helped export-oriented companies, but also those whose production depends on imports.

The crisis has shown that “soloing” in a small regional area can be disastrous, but also that the Western Balkans have the ability and strength to implement joint initiatives to normalize life in interdependent economies.

We talked with Majlinda Bregu, Secretary-General of the Regional Cooperation Council, about “Green Corridors” initiative.

European Western Balkans: Have the “Green Corridors” mitigated the severe economic consequences of the coronavirus for the countries in the Western Balkans? 

Majlinda Bregu: The Green Lanes are one of the success stories achieved in times of big crisis. Western Balkans 6, the Regional Cooperation Council, the Transport Community Treaty Secretariat and CEFTA, with the support of the European Commission and our bordering EU member states, helped governments in the region to set and open a very much needed measure in the given situation to maintain the flow of goods, especially food, medicines and medical equipment within the region and between the region and the EU in the time of lockdown caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

EWB: What were the biggest obstacles in the implementation of the Green Lines, as a specific regime of border crossings?

MB: There are 14 border crossing points amongst the Western Balkan economies and 18 with the EU member states. At one point it took more than 20 hours to cross a border, complete customs procedures, sanitization and health check of the driver.

On top of being extremely time-consuming process that delays and even frequently breaks the supply chains, it is also a costly one – it is calculated that every single minute of waiting time costs nearly 2 € per truck or 26 million hours spent at our internal borders. It means the truck drivers who transport our main goods spend 80% of their time waiting at the border crossing points. Keep this figure in mind too.

At the beginning of the pandemic hardly 2,000 trucks could pass through per day. Today the number has reached more than 13,000 per day.

So not only did the Green Corridor enable a smoother border crossing and goods to reach their destinations on time but it also saved some serious money, time and stress I have to say.

Do not forget that we are talking about the situation when the lockdown was a complete novelty, which combined with uncertain supplies of essential goods caused anxiety of the citizens, not only in the region but worldwide.

I’m sure you’ll all agree that there are not many things that go easy or smoothly in our region, which make all of us working in the region contended to note that despite all the difficulties and differences existing in our region, cooperation pays off.

EWB: Can regional cooperation be the salvation of WB countries in overcoming the crisis? Is it possible that a border crossing regime continues to exist in the future, outside the context of coronavirus?

MB: I have said it many times, and I truly believe that the better the regional cooperation, the stronger we are. Together we can survive as a market and be more trustful and interesting for foreign investors, which means more economic growth and job creation.

Let me recall the roaming agreement. It was hard, but we have it in force today because of this spirit of cooperation. All WB 6 economies with around 18 million inhabitants, even less because of migration, compare to one small-size European country, so to make a serious impact we must step forward together.  And this is what the RCC is continuously and tirelessly working on.

The regional cooperation grew stronger in the past years as did self-consciousness that regional economic integration is a necessity. The summer behind us clearly demonstrated regional intra-dependence. Yes, circumstances forced us to this new model of reality, but also clearly illustrate what defying cooperation and good neighbourly relations does to people.

The old saying that we don’t appreciate what we have until we lose it has once more proven true.And the same as I, our citizens believe in regional cooperation. Their support continues to grow annually: 77% this year, up from 74% in 2018.

Almost 4 years ago we initiated our work on Regional Economic Area (REA). Some notable successes have already been generated as part of our common efforts, not the least the regional roaming agreement. Other regional processes are ongoing and we expect additional results that are imminent.

With the future REA 2, the region should continue on the path of promoting the WB as a common investment space, free movement of capital and services, joint tourism product, upgrading digital infrastructure, mutual connectivity and skills base, boosting innovation and entrepreneurship, exercising more cooperation and coordination to retain and attract talents, working on the Western Balkans Green Agenda but also capitalising on the past achievements such as roaming or Western Balkans Digital Summit in order to deliver similar successes in the future.

But there is also a segment of mobility where we envisage working on enhancing mobility of students, researchers and professors, travel of citizens with ID cards only across the region, which is a crucial dimension of mobility altogether, and finally working to remove work permits within the region allowing the unhindered movement and exchange of labour in the entire WB.

Together with the Commission and WB6, we are working to endorse this framework during the upcoming Sofia Summit, later this year.

EWB: Can the Green Corridors serve as an example of successful regional cooperation?

MB: So, I hope that with the decrease of health risk posed by the coronavirus, the borders will be opened slowly and permanently, as closed borders are of use to no one, especially the EU borders with the Western Balkans.

And ‘Yes’ to answer your question if the Green Corridors can serve as example of successful regional cooperation – they certainly can and we will be doing our best to ‘widen’ these mutual corridors and make them greener.

The time is ticking and the Western Balkans cannot lose another decade marked with new potential instabilities. It’s dangerous. If skilled and educated young people do not see a European perspective at home, they will take on existing opportunities to migrate and seek better living conditions in the EU, by joining EU individually. Transatlantic partnership & regional ownership are always welcome to keep the region sailing west.

The interview was published within the project “Prepare to Participate – P2P” conducted by CEP, NALED and the European Western Balkans portal, with the support of the European Commission.  The general objective of this project is to focus on economic issues in Serbia’s EU accession process and active involvement of civil society organizations in accession negotiations in selected economic chapters

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