Serbia-Hungary border crossing; Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A more connected region of the Western Balkans, in which the travel of people and the transport of goods are faster, cheaper, healthier and more enjoyable, is one of the Transport Community’s visions for the Western Balkans, which could be achieved by greater investment in sustainable infrastructure and connecting roads, railways, ports and airports into the Trans-European Network (TEN-T).

For the time being, the only international organization based in Belgrade, whose members are partners of the Western Balkans and the European Union, was created by an agreement signed at the summit in Trieste in 2017 within the Berlin Process, while the founding agreement was signed in October of the same year.

After that, the transport ministers of the region decided in December that Belgrade would become the seat of the Permanent Secretariat, so that the opening ceremony would be held in September 2019.

However, the Berlin process has not only brought the establishment of the Transport Community to the region but for now also 880 million euros in grants co-financing 39 regional projects (32 in the field of transport and seven in the field of energy) within the “Connectivity Agenda”.

As the Transport Community operates in the field of road, rail, river and maritime transport, and regional connections in these domains will intensify, which we see that not only the European Union but also the United States is interested in, the Transport Community is expected to gain more and more significance.

The COVID – 19 pandemic highlighted the importance of regional connectivity According to the director of the Permanent Secretariat of Transport Community, Matej Zakonjšek, this international organization has managed to become a reliable partner to the citizens and governments of the Western Balkans in the short time of its existence.

We are assisting the six Western Balkans partners to adopt and implement the EU registration in the field of transport and supporting projects that are connecting Western Balkans regional partners among themselves and with the EU”, said Zakošnjek for European Western Balkans.

The transport community played a significant role in the previous period in establishing the “Green Corridors”, when, like the rest of the world, the pandemic of the COVID-19 virus affected both the transport of goods and connectivity in the region and the connection with the European Union.

“At the very beginning of the pandemic, the Transport Community, together with regional organisations CEFTA and RCC, proposed establishing the so-called Green Lanes to guarantee free flow of essential goods within the Western Balkans. By doing so, we managed to ensure that certain type of goods (primarily food and medical supplies) have priority treatment at borders through electronic exchange of information between the border authorities and by enabling 24/7 operations of the border agencies at defined border crossing points along the main corridors”, Zakošnjek stressed.

According to him, this initiative, which was endorsed by all regional partners, was a concrete example of how a good coordination between the different administrations of the Western Balkan partners could generate a positive effect for the entire region.

“The shortage of food or medicine or the blockage at Western Balkan borders was avoided thanks to the proposed measures of coordination”, Zakonjšek told.

Transport community stressed that the crisis showed that when we work together, we work well together, while the EU demonstrated its unwavering commitment to the region. They added that they are determined to build upon these successes, expand the Green Lanes to other goods and, as we like to say, make them “permanently green”.

“We will continue facilitating transport by supporting establishment of joint border crossings in the region, with the aim that all border crossings function under the “one-stop-shop” system, or as we like to call it “one stop-go”. Currently, Western Balkan loses 800 million Euro a year because of lack of joint customs control at border crossings or two Euro per hour of waiting time at borders per truck”, Zakonjšek told.

The future of the Transport Community In order to improve the connectivity of the Western Balkans, the Transport Community has defined a set of priorities for the coming months and years, and one of the priorities is to invest in railway infrastructure.

“Firstly, we need to make rail travel possible and attractive for our citizens and business again. We should invest in rail systems and support multimodal solutions to move as much cargo from roads to rail”, Zakonjšek said adding that better use inland waterway and maritime transport is needed, which will help business, as well as make air cleaner and roads safer”.

Road safety is also one of the priorities of the Transport Community as we are witnessing numerous deaths and injuries on the roads of the Western Balkans.

“While road safety has in general improved in the EU, in the Western Balkans the numbers of dead and injured are above the EU average. We must take decisive steps towards Visio Zero -no more dead or seriously injured because of road accidents on our roads and the railway crossings”, Zakonjšek said.

Transport of goods and mobility of people within and between the Western Balkans and the European Union, in his opinion, should be easy and fast.

“Borders should not be a source of frustration and delays. Citizens of our regional partners, visitors, and business wait too long at the border crossings, especially at the ones with the EU countries”, Zakonjšek concluded.