European integration drives sustainable growth in the Western Balkans

By Volker Ahlemeyer

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The EBRD jointly organised with the European Commission a special event at its 2019 Annual Meeting and Business Forum in Sarajevo on Promoting Investment and Improving Living Standards in the Western Balkans through European Integration.

Both institutions work closely together across the region: helping small businesses become more export-oriented, promoting ‘green’ investments as well as building roads and bridges between countries, both physical and metaphorical ones.

“The Western Balkans countries are clearly on the EU track,” stressed Christian Danielsson, Director General, European Commission, DG Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations. The European Union set out a clear strategy last year on how to join the bloc through ensuring the rule of law, economic reforms and reconciliation.

The region has become an absolute priority for the EU and a credible enlargement strategy is essential to offer the countries a path towards a peaceful and prosperous future, he said. This is why the EU and its Member States put a lot of effort into this over the last few years.

The panellists engaged in a lively debate on the social, economic and political priorities in the Western Balkans. How does the aim of regional integration complement or compete with the countries’ ambitions to join the EU? What can individual countries gain from regional economic cooperation? What are the prospects of becoming part of the EU family in the short-term?

The example of Croatia, the most recent member state, offered a unique insight into the benefits of joining the EU. These were presented by Finance Minister Zdravko Marić, whose country will take over the EU Presidency during the first half of 2020.

For Croatia, a country of 4.2 million citizens, there were new trade opportunities right from the start when joining the EU, a bloc of half a billion people, he said. However, the most important factor at play is how citizens feel about being part of the EU and what the direct advantages of membership are for them. They need to see them for themselves in areas spanning the economy to education and environmental protection.

“The EBRD has been a long-standing investor both in terms of funds and policy reforms in the region,” pointed out Pierre Heilbronn, EBRD Vice President, Policy and Partnerships.

The Bank works with the private sector to attract investments to the region and support those segments that need finance the most, including strategic transport links and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), but also women and young entrepreneurs.

“The European Commission has played a central role in bringing various actors together,” he added. The Western Balkans Investment Framework, which combines financial resources from international financial institutions, the EU and bilateral donors, is a model of cooperation to channel funds into transport, SME, energy and other projects.

The EBRD and other international financial institutions also have a key role to play in supporting the institutional capacity and governance reforms of local actors. Without administrative capacity, investment flows will not be transformational, said Heilbronn.

This point was also stressed by other panellists, underlining the importance of the negotiations’ process leading to EU accession.

The countries in the region are united by a need and sense of emergency – there is a clear reason why countries come together, said Majlinda Bregu, Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council. The market of each individual country may be limited, but together they can form an economic region that is attractive for investments.

European integration therefore has to go hand-in-hand with regional cooperation. Together they offer a credible perspective to the Western Balkans in the long-term, she stressed.

Connecting economies for stronger growth – it is a message that fits both the broader background of this discussion in Sarajevo and, of course, Europe Day.

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