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EU hints at single market access for Western Balkans in exchange for reforms

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Reducing average waiting times at Western Balkan borders by three hours could represent up to 3 percent of GDP in each of the region’s six economies in the medium term.

Explicit recognition of the impatience of Western Balkan countries and the slowness of the European Union was at the heart of prepared remarks at the October 16 Berlin Process in Tirana, Albania.

“In the Western Balkans, your journey to the EU began more than 20 years ago. And yes, the path has been slow, too slow, disappointing for you in the region and for us in the EU,” deplored European Council President Charles Michel then acknowledged that the 2030 deadline he set this summer “has caused some skepticism in your region, because you have been waiting for a long time.”

But each acknowledgment of waning motivation came with a commitment that, this time, the EU was really serious about the region’s membership.

“Dear Edi,” said Michel, addressing his host, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama. “I know you’ve compared enlargement to a bride who never shows up to the wedding. I would like to tell you that the bride is now actively preparing for the wedding.

The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, was even more specific: saying“My first very clear message: Albania is on the way to joining the European Union. »

The Berlin Process

The Tirana summit was the tenth Berlin Process between the leaders of the EU and six Western Balkan countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia) since the format’s inception in 2014.

At that time, the EU was overwhelmed by a migration crisis and suspended enlargement, but wanted to retain a means of ensuring stability, reform progress and regional cooperation in the Western Balkans.

The October 16 meeting was the first time this format was held in a Western Balkan country. Its formal meetings were accompanied by parallel meetings of youth, civil society and business organizations. This year’s summit coincided with the opening of a College of Europe campus in Tirana and an agreement for the mutual recognition of professional qualifications.

However, the main headline of the meeting was that a new EU growth plan would allow Balkan countries access to parts of the EU single market in return for demonstrated reforms.

Integration with the single market

“Each time there has been an enlargement, not only have the countries which have joined the European Union seen their economic development considerably boosted because they have joined the single market, but also the European Union has improved because the single market has expanded”, said von der Leyen. “We want in principle to open, in specific areas, the doors of the single market, of the single European market, to companies from the Western Balkans.”

“We are opening it up in areas such as the free movement of goods and services, road transport, energy, electricity, the EU digital single market and, most importantly, we are facilitating payments without cash thanks to a single European payments area, to name just a few things. “, she announced, noting that she hoped this would provide a “very strong incentive” for reforms.

The World Bank has celebrated the prospect of closer economic integration and possible EU membership for some of Europe’s poorest countries.

“The Western Balkans have a tremendous opportunity to tap into a market of 450 million people in the EU,” said Antonella Bassani, World Bank vice president for Europe and Central Asia.

“Experience around the world, as well as in the Western Balkans, has shown that for businesses to grow and achieve economies of scale, access to international markets is essential. Economic integration provides a fast track to the adoption of new technologies, to the flow of new ideas and innovations, and to a transition to higher productivity that underpins growth in middle-income economies.

Obstacles to the single market are holding back the full economic potential of EU countries and Balkan candidate countries. Every year, truck drivers wait around 26 million hours, or almost 3,000 years, at border crossings in the Western Balkans.

The World Bank estimates that a three-hour reduction in average border wait times could represent up to 3% of gross domestic product (GDP) in each of the six economies in the medium term. EU membership would increase gains by a further 6 percent for Western Balkan states, while neighboring EU member states like Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria could see gains of 0.2 percent. cent due to increased trade.

But for these achievements to materialize, it is not only the Western Balkan countries that must continue their reforms: the EU itself must continue its reforms. internal reforms prepare its institutions to welcome more members. In Tirana, Michel acknowledged the need for these reforms, but there is not yet consensus among member states on precisely how EU decision-making processes should change.

Nonetheless, the growth plan provides a much-needed medium-term incentive for Balkan countries to continue reforms as Brussels prepares for 2030.

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