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Conference summary: Western Balkans: infrastructure, energy, geopolitics

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Round tables

All vital issues for the integration of the Western Balkan countries into the European Union were raised during the round tables, during which participants spoke about the development of road, rail, air and maritime infrastructure in a regional context. The panelists also discussed energy projects in the Western Balkans and opportunities to strengthen energy security in the region and Europe. Given the increased activity of many international actors in the region, the discussion then focused on geopolitical approaches to Western Balkans cooperation with China, the European Union, Russia, Turkey, the United States and NATO.

Session 1: Infrastructure

The first panel of experts was moderated by a researcher and European projects expert Armela Maxhelaku (Albania) which briefly characterized the infrastructure of the Western Balkans and described foreign mechanisms for financing regional investments.

For its part, President of the European Movement in Montenegro Momcilo Radulovic (Montenegro) claimed that the infrastructure needs of the Western Balkans are enormous and cannot be entirely financed by EU grants and loans. Despite their desire to use EU financing mechanisms, the Balkan states are pushed to cooperate, among others, with China to cover their investment demand. Given the long process of integration of the Western Balkans into the EU and the lack of understanding of some European partners, the Balkan states expect their EU peers to adopt a partnership approach to their integration, which begins with a tightening of economic ties.

Assistant Professor of the Faculty of Political Sciences of the University of Zagreb Robert Barić (Croatia) argued that the biggest flaw of the Berlin process is that it encompasses both political and diplomatic commitments, but fails to offer a sufficient infrastructural solution which, once proposed, could exert a positive impact on the acceleration of integration mechanisms. He also highlighted the importance of Chinese investments in the region as part of the New Silk Road initiative, considered Beijing’s gateway to Europe, highlighting their plausible positive effects (general development infrastructure in the region, easier accessibility to transport services and market expansion). and negative consequences (lack of transparency, unclear and unfair economic practices, dependence on Chinese loans and reliance on foreign authority to enhance political influence). “Chinese-financed investments could be seen as a double-edged sword,” Barić added. Asked about the use of infrastructure for military purposes, he said Western Balkan countries remained focused on developing their infrastructure purely from an economic perspective, as a critical factor determining economic security.

President and CEO of the IMPETUS Center for Internet, Development and Good Governance Liljana Pecova-Ilieska (North Macedonia) familiarized the event participants with the responsibility of Western Balkan states in the preparation and implementation of new investment projects, arguing that their transparency remains a considerable challenge that must be addressed. In the rest of her speech, she referred to the conference report and recognized that the European Union offers the best conditions for financing investments in the Western Balkans. However, she said these measures required full transparency and involved a long bureaucratic process, prompting Western Balkan states to opt for easier and faster foreign loans, including Chinese ones.

Deputy Director of the International Cooperation Department at the Ministry of Infrastructure Marcin Rzeszewicz (Poland) provided an overview of Poland’s experience as a member of the European Union over the past fifteen years and paid particular attention to the country’s efforts to modernize its infrastructure. After citing relevant statistical data, he informed other conference participants that Poland is one of the largest recipients of European funds in this area. Over the past fifteen years, Poland has benefited from EU support, mainly in the form of non-repayable grants, and has built or upgraded up to 4,700 kilometers of railways and 4,000 kilometers of various types of roads. Finally, he highlighted the effectiveness of Poland’s cooperation with other countries within the structures of the European Union and the Visegrad Group, as it makes it possible to advance important infrastructure projects of importance transnational, which can be a good sign for the Western Balkan states. .

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