European Western Balkans

CSF 2023: Enlargement of EU single digital market to the Western Balkans brings mutual benefits

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The Civil Society and Think Tank Forum (CSF) under the Berlin Process is scheduled to be held on October 14-15 in Tirana. The primary objective of the CSF is to facilitate constructive and inclusive discussions on regional challenges. The forum is structured around seven thematic working groups, each led by civil society organizations from the region. These working groups have actively engaged in a comprehensive consultation process, involving civil society and regional experts, to collaboratively formulate policy recommendations.

During the second day of the Civil Society and Think Tank Forum (CSF) in Tirana, in the panel titled “Reaching Over the Digital Fence,” regional experts will have the opportunity to discuss how EU regulation can help improve digital markets and services in the Western Balkans.

Regarding the main challenges and recommendations in the area of digitalization, we spoke with Darko Brkan from the Sarajevo-based organization “Why not” (Zašto ne), which led the working group on digitalization and connectivity. Brkan explained to EWB that digitalization is a process that encompasses a very broad field and a large number of stakeholders, which, in turn, presents numerous challenges in this area.

“Among the main challenges, there is undoubtedly a lack of resources and capacities in the countries of the region for the digitalization process, fragmentation, and lack of coordination among institutions in the implementation and formulation of regulations necessary for digital transformation, the inability to develop infrastructure for various reasons, as well as an unsatisfactory level of digital and information literacy among citizens,” Brkan said.

He mentioned that digitalization faces many challenges on a global level that cannot be solved at the national level.

“These include issues related to the regulation of digital services and markets, primarily the need to enhance the security of the digital environment by major online platforms,” Brkan explained.

He assessed that this is a problem that affects all aspects of digital development. “We believe that countries in the region must join the regulatory processes on these matters currently taking place within the EU as soon as possible,” Brkan added.

When it comes to the EU’s engagement in the digital transformation of the Western Balkans, Brkan assessed that the EU is highly engaged, from funding projects and monitoring the digitalization process to providing assistance, supporting the alignment of legislation with EU standards, and participating in EU initiatives related to the digital agenda.

However, he believes that the effects of these processes could be greatly amplified through a joint effort to facilitate the early integration of the countries in the region into the EU’s single digital market.

“This would enable all of us, in addition to aligning with EU legislation, to benefit from this process. Issues related to online security, the protection of minors and other vulnerable groups, transparency in political campaigns, the proliferation of illegal and harmful content, and many others are challenges that countries in the region are unlikely to address effectively on their own,” says Brkan.

According to him, waiting for EU accession to take advantage of the protection that the new EU digital regulations will hopefully provide may be too late. “Therefore, I believe that, in addition to the support it already provides, the EU should find ways to expedite the enlargement of the EU’s single digital market to the Western Balkans as soon as possible, leading to mutual benefits,” adds Brkan.

A thematic working group composed of civil society organizations and individuals from the region dedicated to digitalization made recommendations to the EU and Western Balkan countries for improving the digitalization process in the region.

This year, the digitalization working group primarily focused on the question of how the region can make the most of the EU legislative process in the field of digitalization as quickly as possible. This primarily refers to the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, as well as the co-regulatory process accompanying this, such as the work on the Code of Practice on Disinformation.

It is recommended to establish a coordinated regional approach to implementing the EU Digital Services Act or an equivalent regulatory regional instrument to ensure equal protection and online user security in the region, similar to what has been done in the EU.

CSOs recommend facilitating and expediting the WB’s entry into the EU’s single digital market, ensuring that the entire region progresses at the same pace wherever possible.

According to Brkan, one of the recommendations calls on advocating that major online platforms and search engines (VLOPs and VLSEs) extend the commitments made through the Code of Practice on Disinformation to EU member states and the Western Balkan countries.

“I believe this is currently the most relevant and complex area in the region’s progress towards digitalization, and it is crucial that we address these issues as early as possible. Furthermore, we believe that all countries in the region share a common interest and the need to provide a high level of online protection to their citizens and that we can establish a unified regional voice to communicate with the EU on this matter,” Brkan concludes.

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