Ms. Secretary General, how is the state of the art of regional cooperation in the Western Balkans?
At the beginning of the post-war period in the former Yugoslavia and the post-communist era in Albania, the region was mostly focussed on stabilization. It took years to accomplish this priority. Now, I see a sweeping awareness of the importance of regional cooperation. Over the last ten years we have increasingly realized that we, the countries of the Western Balkans, must join forces to give business communities and citizens better opportunities. Just to take an example, two years ago the agreement to remove roaming charges in the whole region entered into force, and as of this 1st of July 2021, the roaming in the Western Balkans will be zero; a measure highly appreciated by both citizens and entrepreneurs. Now we are working to get mutual recognition of diplomas. The RCC mission is building an agenda that serves people’s interests.
Has there been a specific accelerator speeding up regional cooperation?
More and more young, talented people have left the region over the last years. This phenomenon was a signal for the governments. It showed that citizens need policies oriented to improve their lives. One of their main needs, for instance, is having free movement across the region. Around 50% of the citizens of the WB6 cannot travel freely, visit each other or develop transnational business ties. They are burdens that we are trying to overcome. If we succeed, the scenario will improve dramatically, also in terms of women’s economic empowerment.
Free movement of people, goods and capital: these are the pillars of the recently adopted strategy for a Regional Common Market. How can the region benefit from it?
Leaders of the WB6 endorsed the Common Regional Market in November 2020. There is a clear roadmap, covering a period of four years, purposed to deepen economic integration and create a market of 18 million people, which is much better than having six small national markets. If implemented, the plan can help the region recover from the losses of the pandemic, raising the GDP by 6-7%. It is up to governments to make this agenda effective. As for the RCC, we coordinate the process and continue being committed to spreading the message that together we are stronger.
During the pandemic (and because of it), the RCC has launched an initiative to open borders, within the region and between the Western Balkans (WB) and the EU, to allow the flow of medicines, medical equipment and food. A test for the Regional Common Market, somehow. Has it delivered results?
When the pandemic broke out, daily problems across the borders – long queues, lengthy checks, truck drivers waiting for days – became even more unbearable due to new health rules and quarantine required. The establishment of the Green Corridors, agreed by the WB6 and the EU, is a success story that we managed to carry out, so that procedures across the borders will be smoother. Once more, this experience tells us that in times of crisis, whether it is a pandemic, an earthquake or big floods, we need each other.
Do you think that the EU can do more for the Western Balkans?
The Western Balkans are part of the European continent, not only because of geography. In fact, many people from the region have moved to EU countries to work. They contribute to their economies. I have always been a staunch supporter of the integration of the Western Balkans in the EU, and Brussels has an important role in the region, providing investments and stabilization. Furthermore, the European membership narrative is a lighthouse for pushing for reforms in our countries. Yet, I do think that the EU should do more to make the Western Balkans feel more involved in this story. Also, I believe that a renewed US–EU partnership can help the WB6 a lot. Whenever the transatlantic cooperation has been closer, the region has always moved forward.