Leaders from the Western Balkans Six met to agree on bold, practical actions to help the region emerge stronger together from the impact of COVID-19 with greater regional economic development opportunities. Specifically, they agreed to accelerate free movement of goods, services, capital, and people in the region, eliminating barriers that have hindered economic growth; and to pursue an investment plan to attract new foreign direct investment in the region and accelerate the deployment of committed COVID-19 recovery funds, with a focus on infrastructure and energy.
The leaders committed to improving political cooperation and good neighborly relations and to strive to resolve bilateral issues in the region.
Leaders of the Western Balkans Six met at the invitation of the Atlantic Council of the United States to discuss practical measures that will create opportunity throughout the region.
Leaders committed to facilitate and promote concrete steps toward regional economic development in order to stimulate post-COVID-19 economic recovery, boost the region’s long-term competitiveness, and strengthen its attractiveness for investors.
Leaders emphasized that people in the Western Balkans need to see tangible progress, soon. The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to cut economic activity in the region drastically, while regional economic integration can raise GDP by more than 10 percent, according to both the International Monetary Fund and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).
The region is committed to European integration, based on European Union (EU) rules and principles and including membership in the EU, and to regional and European initiatives such as the Regional Economic Area (REA) established as part of the Berlin Process, the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), the Treaty Establishing the Transport Community, and the Treaty Establishing the Energy Community. The Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) has a special role to play in providing a framework for progress and preparing for the Sofia Summit scheduled for November.
In order to show results immediately, and to reinforce the processes underway, leaders announced that their approach in the regional initiatives will be built on these pillars:
1 – IMPLEMENTING THE EU’S FOUR FREEDOMS
The free movement of goods, services, capital, and people is the heart of European integration. Leaders accordingly have agreed, as each seeks EU membership through the EU’s processes, to continue deepening regional economic integration, building on EU rules and standards, and thereby bringing the region and its companies closer to the EU Internal Market. It will build on the successes thus far of the Regional Economic Area, bringing regional economic development to a new level.
To do so, leaders have tasked their institutions, in coordination with regional organizations, to prepare an action plan structured around the four freedoms, for their adoption at the Sofia Summit planned for November in the framework of the Berlin Process. This work shall reflect several principles:
Deepen Regional Cooperation. Leaders acknowledge that inclusive regional organizations and initiatives have been instrumental during the lockdown in establishing green lanes to ensure unobstructed flow of all goods and priority passage for essential goods. This achievement will be made permanent, and the Sofia Summit should see further steps in this direction, including expansion of the green lane concept to more goods and to EU neighbors of the WB6, as well as the improvement of infrastructure at priority border crossing points. In 2016 trucks spent 26 million hours at internal border/common crossing points. This is 80 percent of their time in the region. We will agree on measures to match EU targets at border/common crossing points and, if possible, eliminate waiting.
Follow Through on Implementation. The Western Balkans Six have made various, multiple commitments promoting the four freedoms, but implementation sometimes lags. In preparations for the Sofia Summit, the Western Balkans Six will set specific benchmarks.
Work Regionally. Leaders committed to work through the regional initiatives described above so that all the Western Balkans Six benefit. If implementation involves bilateral or multilateral agreements not including all six, such agreements will be consistent with EU requirements and regional economic initiatives, transparent, and open to all.
Make Progress Visible to Citizens. Citizens must see change and experience opportunity in the region to live, study, work, and visit without requirements beyond their domestic documentation. They should see public services become more efficient and infrastructure improved.
2 – SHOVEL-READY INVESTMENT PROJECTS
Leaders welcome the commitment of the EU to the region as demonstrated by the substantial amount of funding made available – and as noted at the Zagreb Summit, already disbursed – as part of the COVID recovery effort. Leaders also welcome support from international financial institutions and US government entities to facilitate greater private sector investment in the region and note with particular appreciation the work of the European Commission and its partners on a package of investment for the Western Balkans anticipated for later in 2020.
Leaders again emphasized that citizens should see investments made soon, especially in infrastructure. To that end, they commit to create the necessary conditions to maximize the impact of investments made as part of the COVID response – to help identify projects with regional impact, to create conditions required by regional initiatives, and to remain engaged so that funds are disbursed quickly, transparently, and with greatest impact. This will ensure that the citizens of the region see economic activity take place rapidly.
To that end, the Western Balkan Six will work within the Western Balkans Investment Framework and with potential investors, the EU, the European Investment Bank, EBRD, the World Bank, and the US Development Finance Corporation, to have ready by the Sofia Summit a substantial set of investments in projects with potential investors identified, concerns addressed, and ready for investment decision, respecting the decision-making processes of each investor.
Leaders have asked their teams to give priority to infrastructure projects that promote regional economic development; that advance the goals of the European Green Deal and Digital Agenda as applied to the Western Balkans Six; and that create economic activity in the form of jobs and disbursement rapidly. The portfolio of projects will include activity in each of the WB6. They stressed that funding for projects in the areas of digital connectivity and broadband infrastructure, railway and other forms of transportation, and the diversification of energy supplies should be particular priorities, as ways to bridge the economic and development gap between the Western Balkans and the rest of Europe and in order to bring the region closer to the Euro-Atlantic community.
The effort aims to promote quality infrastructure investment that is open and inclusive, transparent, economically viable, financially, environmentally and socially sustainable, and compliant with European requirements and international standards, laws, and regulations.
3 – TRACKING IMPLEMENTATION
People should know that the Western Balkans Six are doing what its leaders promise. Leaders agreed to implement in the most transparent, efficient, and inclusive manner the necessary measures to facilitate the free movement of goods, services, capital, and persons and to attract investments.
The Regional Cooperation Council, with the assistance of international partners, will develop an appropriate tool in order to track the implementation of measures agreed in regional economic initiatives, without creating duplicative reporting requirements. The Western Balkans Six Chambers of Commerce already plan quarterly reports on regional company investments, regional trade flows, and the business perspective on whether key indicators are met; this will be important information to be included. This tool should allow all stakeholders, including citizens, to provide input on the effectiveness of steps taken.
The leaders welcomed a suggestion from the Atlantic Council that it produce a report in advance of the Sofia Summit, in consultation with the Western Balkans Six, to contribute to the preparations for that Summit.