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How to boost the Western Balkans’ future prospects

By Vanora Bennett

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How to boost the Western Balkans’ future prospects

(l-r) Oleg Levitin, Charlotte Ruhe and Suma Chakrabarti from the EBRD, and the six Western Balkans leaders: Ana Brnabic, Albin Kurti, Dusko Markovic, Edi Rama, Oliver Spasovski and Zoran Tegeltija. 

Prime Ministers of the six Western Balkans nations discussed with EBRD President Sir Suma Chakrabarti today at a regional Investment Summit in London what recent achievements they are proud of and where they should be looking next.

With the EU delaying giving the green light to start negotiations on future membership with North Macedonia and Albania, those two countries and Serbia have set up their own “mini-Schengen” free trade zone to minimise bureaucracy and guarantee the four EU freedoms – free movement of people, products, goods and services through their territory.

This, they say, is their best hope to show private investors and the world that they can provide a bigger investment space and the unified administration and stability that investors want to see.

At the summit held at EBRD headquarters the three prime ministers of those countries talked of the importance of this initiative, as well as of all the region’s connectivity programmes in transport and infrastructure and digital transformation, and urged their colleagues in Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina to join them in the “mini-Schengen” effort.

The summit was the fourth such event since the EBRD pioneered the format in 2014.  

The Prime Minister of neighbouring Croatia, Andrej Plenkovic, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, talked of Croatia’s efforts for the six months of its presidency to facilitate and accelerate the path of all Western Balkans neighbours towards EU membership.

Albania’s Prime Minister, Edi Rama, said: “I want to thank Andrej for making time to come here. It’s very important for us. Everyone here is grateful for that because Croatia is somehow our agent in Brussels and at the same time is Brussels’ translator for our region.” He added, with a smile, “of course easier to translate Brussels to us than us to Brussels!”

All six Prime Ministers talked of major connectivity programmes already underway as well as of hopes of attracting more investment to the region, whether through new public-private partnerships to extend the huge infrastructure projects across the region, which aim to increase connectivity and open borders, or through existing relationships with the EU, international institutions such as the EBRD and private investors.

After listening to the discussion, the EBRD’s Chakrabarti commented: “What’s changed in region since I first had to do with it more than 20 years ago? The biggest change is leadership.

“It’s a leadership now of a different generation that emphasises unity of purpose rather than disunity, that actually looks for peace and economic development and really is enthusiastic about the wider world in a way that wasn’t the case a generation ago.”

“Second there’s clarity – clarity at project level. It’s very interesting how every single intervention from the PMs is quite granular. This is excellent news for investors.

“There’s clarity too about the direction on Europe. The third thing I heard was about the willingness to reform, to make these crossborder proejcts work well.

“For the EBRD, if I look at our numbers - €13 billion of investment so far – in the last few years ago there’s been a huge growth in those numbers,” he added.

“Why? It’s been a more-for-more case with these regions – the more reform has happened the more we’ve been able to do. It’s not a surprise that in 3-4 of these countries we’ve had record numbers and I expect that to continue.

“Our work in the Western Balkans has also shown the EBRD model work well in terms of bringing work on policy and projects together.” 

The Prime Ministers’ session was followed by an investors’ panel on the green economy and how to improve the way the Western Balkans countries generate and consume energy. The EBRD is a leading investor in renewables in the region, co-financing, for example, pioneering wind farm projects in Serbia and Kosovo. Investments are increasingly complemented by policy reform which has created an environment in which renewables today are competitive with traditional form of energy generation. as the region remains behind more advanced economies in terms of energy efficiency, improvements in this field are crucial for future sustainable growth.

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