The leaders of the Western Balkan countries and EU representatives will hold a summit on the Western Balkans in Sofia today, under the auspices of the Berlin Process, co-chaired by North Macedonia and Bulgaria.
In addition to the leaders of the countries in the region, including the Prime Minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev, the summit is expected to be attended by EU Heads of State and Government, including Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as a pioneer of the Berlin process. EU head of diplomacy Josep Borrell and EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi will also attend.
According to the European Commission, the countries of the Western Balkans are expected to adopt an action plan for a common regional market at the Summit.
Zoran Zaev stated that he expects the Sofia Summit to send the message once again for the opening of the first chapters, ie the holding of the first EU intergovernmental conferences with the Republic of Albania and the Republic of North Macedonia.
“I look forward to strong support for the European progress of all six Western Balkan candidate countries and we want to join the EU faster. And of course I expect the Berlin Summit to send the message once again to start negotiations, that is, the opening of the first chapters, that is, the holding of the first EU intergovernmental conferences with the Republic of Albania and the Republic of North Macedonia”, Zaev said.
Ahead of the summit, EU Commissioner Varhelyi said that regional co-operation “does not replace EU membership”, but is “a key part of the process leading to it”.
He added that the regional market plan is “the key to increasing the region’s attractiveness and competitiveness and bringing the region closer to the EU single market”.
“A common regional market will also provide a huge incentive for residents to connect. One of the aspirations is the free movement of people. This, for example, will allow people to travel with only IDs, revoke work permits and facilitate the mobility of students, researchers and teachers”, Varhelyi said.
The commissioner said boosting investment and economic growth and providing jobs for young people in the Western Balkans is only possible if governments are firmly committed to fundamental reforms.
“Structural economic reforms, strengthening the rule of law and democratic principles, fighting corruption and improving public administration reforms are crucial to ensuring long-term security and stability in the region”, Varhelyi said.
The Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council, Majlinda Bregu, informed that the leaders of the Western Balkans will confirm the new plan for the common regional market at the Summit.
“The common regional market is not a new idea. It is a large project based on four freedoms, as well as the European Union single market, but is also supported by digital, innovative, industrial and investment sectors. We are proud to have borne the brunt of this process together with the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, regional agencies, international financial institutions and long-term partners. However, governments will have to take responsibility for implementing the plan”, Bregu said.
According to her, the Western Balkans is not a perfect region. Unemployment, the economic situation, the outflow of skilled labor and young people leaving the country are a discouraging reality.
“Twenty years ago, many people who sought refuge from the war returned home. Today, 71% of young people in the Western Balkans are considering going abroad for work, while 43% are ready to move in search of lost hope. Regional growth is projected to decline to -5.1%. “The decline in GDP in the second quarter of this year is huge, in some cases up to -20%, mainly due to the collapse in the tourism sector”, Bregu pointed out.
It is not easy, she added, to make progress under such circumstances.
“Therefore, we should not complicate matters further, but give the opportunity to implement these proposals that helped identify the six economies in the Western Balkans. Policies that focus on borders and differences will not help the region become richer. I really hope that the common regional market will be supported and implemented to ensure a deeper economic integration of the region. If that happens, we will all benefit”, Bregu concluded.
The common regional market emerged from a multi-annual action plan adopted three years ago in Trieste, when the leaders of the six Western Balkan economies agreed to give the region the opportunity to build its own economic space for a smooth flow of goods and services, funds and a skilled workforce that would make it more attractive and investment-friendly. The results achieved in the Regional Economic Area are: 96% lower roaming prices and their complete abolition from July 2021, increase in trade in goods by 25% and increase in foreign direct investment by 35% since 2016.
The Berlin Process is an initiative aimed at strengthening regional cooperation in the Western Balkans and contributing to the integration of the region’s six economies into the European Union. The initiative was launched by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on 28 August 2014. This year, the Berlin Process is co-chaired by Bulgaria and North Macedonia.
The Sofia Summit is part of the Berlin Process and is the seventh summit under the process that began in 2014 in Berlin./ibna