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CSF 2023: Western Balkans should immediately access areas of the EU Single Market

Berlin Process Summit 2022; Photo: Twitter / @vonderleyen

The Civil Society and Think Tank Forum (CSF), as a part of the Berlin Process, is scheduled for 14 and 15 October in Tirana. 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.

According to the announcement of the Civil Society Forum, the Thematic Working Group on Access to the European Single Market will explore venues for economic integration of the Western Balkans to the EU. The underlying assumption is that the region needs a substantive increase in financial support and investments to bridge the divergence gap with the EU.

“The discussion will therefore focus on three key issues: participation in the European Semester, access to European Funds, and access to the European Single Market”, the announcement reads.

According to the current recommendations of the working group, the EU should present a plan with a feasible timeline to allow the markets of the Western Balkan Six to immediately access the EU Single Market in all areas that would not impose high adjustment costs.

Another recommendation is that, by the end of the year, the EU should present a formal plan for boosting pre-accession assistance in this multiannual financial framework (MFF) with strict rule of law conditionality.

When it comes to the recommendations to the governments of the region, the working group concludes that they should manifest their unequivocal commitment to implement and monitor the implementation of the reforms linked to the Single Market acquis.

Both the EU and the Western Balkans, according to the working group, should significantly increase the transparency of the planning, management, implementation, monitoring, reporting, and evaluation of pre-accession funds.

European Policy Institute from Skopje, North Macedonia, the lead organization of this working group, stresses that neither of the Western Balkan countries is prepared and does not meet the economic criteria for membership to the EU.

“Thus, the scope of the Thematic Working Group went beyond discussing how and why should the Western Balkan countries be granted “early” access to the EU. Thematic Working Group agenda was set so the participants can discuss how to stimulate reforms needed to meet the requirements of the Single Market acquis, as well as the structural reforms that would make the Western Balkan economies more competitive”, says Stefan Ristovski, researcher at the European Policy Institute for European Western Balkans. 

Moreover, he adds, the consultations turned toward how to support better financing of those reforms, through improved public finance management and medium-term budget planning as well as a targeted use of available as well as the need for increased EU funding.

“The Thematic Working Group started working shortly after the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen announced the Growth Plan for the Western Balkans at GLOBSEC. We are glad our working group, among others, can feed in the ongoing policy discussions on how to bring closer the Western Balkans to the EU, with accession as the end goal of this process”, Ristovski says.

No plan presented by the EU institutions, however, can by itself bring prosperity to the region. The feasibility of such plan(s) will largely depend on political commitment and the capacity of the national institutions of the Western Balkans to deliver.

“The countries from the region have to step up the pace in terms of alignment with and implementation of the EU acquis. This is relevant for all the four freedoms, as well as related areas in the negotiating clusters, and primary Internal Market”, Ristovski says.

Above all, he adds, the Western Balkan countries have to build and sustain robust and impartial regulatory bodies and ensure that judicial systems are independent.

“The EU Member States would grant benefits to the countries from the region only if they are certain that the EU rules are applied fairly and equally”, Ristovki concludes.

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