Western Balkan leaders commit to accelerated regional cooperation

Western Balkan leaders commit to accelerated regional cooperation
Albanian PM Edi Rama (right) calls at Tirana summit for fellow Western Balkan leaders to overcome historic conflicts to achieve prosperity. / European Union, 2024
By bne IntelliNews March 1, 2024

Leaders of Western Balkan countries pledged on February 29 to speed up regional cooperation in order to maximise the benefits of a new European Union financial aid package aimed at hastening their path to EU membership.

The EU’s New Growth Plan earmarks €6bn for Balkan states, with the aim of doubling the size of the region's economy within the next decade, contingent upon implementing reforms aligning their economies with EU standards. At the same time, candidate countries that carry out reforms will gain some of the benefits of EU membership before accession. 

Leaders from the region gathered at the summit on the Growth and Convergence Plan in Tirana on February 29, with a focus on the integration of the Western Balkans towards the European Union, as well as the implementation of the New Growth Plan. 

Welcoming the initiative, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, hosting the summit in Tirana, hailed the growth plan as "really encouraging result of a frank and open exchange of views”, according to a statement on the Albanian government website.  

In his opening speech, Rama spoke of the significance of the plan. “It is very clear to me that the new opportunity represented by this out-of-the-box plan is not only recognition by the EU of our decade-long efforts to build a common future against the wild winds of the past , but also challenges us to prove our readiness for the common European destiny,” he said. 

The six Western Balkan countries – Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – are each at varying stages of their EU membership processes. In the past they have expressed frustration with the sluggish pace of the process, with Croatia being the last country admitted to the EU in 2013. However, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 there has been a new momentum for enlargement. 

At the summit, Rama also called on states from the region to set historic conflicts aside as they work toward EU accession. 

“With the new growth plan now in place the imperative is clear, either we take the necessary steps to move the EU closer to each other or risk failing to get a seat at the EU table and to give the economies of our citizens a security for their needs for years to come. We either do it together or fail together,” he said. 

“Either we make peace to work for our prosperity or the lack of this prosperity will cause us to lose peace. This is how the European Union works, this is how the Western Balkans should work.”

EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi outlined the Commission's goal to halve the implementation time of the ambitious plan. 

“This integration process means that the economy of the Western Balkans, the societies of the Western Balkans are integrated into the European Union, which also means that the European Union must offer all the benefits that membership brings before your countries become member states. of the EU,” said Varhelyi. 

Concrete steps agreed upon by Western Balkan countries include unifying financial regulations, with Varhelyi noting that the harmonisation would lead to significant cost savings in banking transactions.

Additionally, commitments were made to adapt customs regulations, establish joint border crossings akin to EU member states, and launch research and development hubs while ensuring free Wi-Fi availability in public spaces.

However, Varhelyi stressed that progress is contingent upon the region's commitment to necessary reforms.