The time has come to focus on what unites the EU and the Western Balkans rather than concentrating on divisive elements. Representatives of employers, workers and civil society at large stand ready to contribute with their expertise to the enlargement process and make it a success.
The European Union continues to be the main economic partner for the Western Balkan states. Trade with the EU accounts for almost 70 percent of the overall trade of all six Western Balkan partners.
In 2020, that came to over €50bn, having grown by 84 percent in 10 years. While the figures are clear, certain third countries have a growing interest in the region. And let's face it, they are sometimes more effective at advertising their involvement than the EU.
The Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans is yet further proof of the EU’s commitment to the region. Up to €9bn in grants plus investment guarantees of up to €20bn are a unique opportunity for the Western Balkan partners to get closer to the EU.
The money will be spent on sustainable infrastructure, energy transition, environment and climate, digitalisation, boosting the competitiveness of the private sector and on youth. Whether they grasp this opportunity is up to our partners.
Civil society cooperation speeding up
Last week, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held the Western Balkans Civil Society Forum in Skopje, where we gathered representatives of civil society organisations from both the Western Balkans and the EU.
In the declaration issued following the Forum, we once again underlined that the Western Balkans’ place was in the EU. We believe that the countries in this region should be given a genuine opportunity to join the EU family, provided they meet all the conditions for accession.
"Although enlargement is a political decision, I believe that organised civil society from both the Western Balkans and the EU must be involved in this process"
As a consultative body of the EU institutions, we strongly support tangible progress in the accession process. We hope that the Council of the EU will find a way to break the impasse and reach a consensus on the thorny issues.
The EESC is also committed to doing everything in its power to support North Macedonia and Albania in opening the first chapters of the EU accession negotiations still in 2021.
Personally, I left the forum encouraged by the enthusiasm of participants from the Western Balkans. The forum provides a space to exchange good practices, and I believe that the commitment of our counterparts in the region, combined with the experience and knowledge of European civil society actors can yield positive results for the future.
Yes, countries in this region still have a huge amount of work to do in terms of reforms. Further effort is needed to implement structural economic reforms, ensure good governance and respect for the rule of law - to mention just a few. Many of these changes cannot be achieved simply by enacting legislation – they require a change of mind-set.
How does the EESC want to contribute?
Although enlargement is a political decision, I believe that organised civil society from both the Western Balkans and the EU must be involved in this process.
Functioning social and civil dialogue, together with respect for the rule of law, are paramount when assessing a country's readiness to join the European Union. It starts with genuine involvement of organised civil society in policy making.
Once the first chapters of the negotiations are open with North Macedonia and Albania, our joint consultative committee between civil society representatives - including the social partners and other civil society organisations will start holding regular meetings.
"If the EU keeps holding back the accession process for the Western Balkans, we run the risk of letting their citizens down for good. This disappointment might be used by third countries building up their influence in the region to undermine the current pro-European feeling there"
These bodies will provide real input from organised civil society to accompany the accession process of the two counties to make enlargement beneficial for both sides. We look very much forward for this work to begin.
Any discussion about the European Union’s enlargement is implicitly a discussion about the future of Europe and vice versa. The EU's priorities - rapid recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, a prosperous, green and digital future rooted in European values - are also our neighbours' future.
That is why we need to involve our partners – civil society organisations from the Western Balkans – in the discussions on the Future of Europe.
Future enlargement – a win-win scenario
The prospect of EU membership for the Western Balkans is in the Union's own interest. It is a geostrategic investment in a stable, strong and united Europe based on common values. Moreover, it is a powerful tool for promoting democracy, the rule of law and respect for fundamental rights.
If the EU keeps holding back the accession process for the Western Balkans, we run the risk of letting their citizens down for good.
This disappointment might be used by third countries building up their influence in the region to undermine the current pro-European feeling there - and the EU must not allow that to happen.