The countries of the Western Balkans need a clear roadmap for accession to the EU

This was the main message from the public hearing on the economic and social cohesion and European integration of the Western Balkans, held by the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels.

"We are very pleased that the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU has chosen the Western Balkans to be one of their priorities and has asked the EESC to draft an opinion on the subject", said Ionut Sibian, president of the EESC's study group on the Economic and social cohesion and European integration of the Western Balkans. Andrej Zorko, rapporteur for the EESC's opinion, pointed out that the region was extremely complex and that there was a need for greater regional cooperation and more serious involvement of civil society in the European integration process.  "The Western Balkans must be one of the EU's priorities over the coming years to ensure political stability in the region", insisted Dimitris Dimitriadis, co-rapporteur.

Representatives of civil society organisations, think thanks, EU institutions and academia agreed that the economic convergence of the Western Balkans would be a long-term process and outlined high levels of unemployment, low productivity, the skills gap and weak competitiveness as some of the problems the countries of the region were facing. "Cronyism remains rife", said Peter Sanfey, Deputy Director of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The participants agreed that there were already various instruments and programmes in the region which were tackling some of these problems, but that offering a clear European perspective to the countries would serve as a catalyst to accelerate the reforms. They also emphasised the crucial importance of involving the social partners and civil society organisations from the region in the European integration process in a more formal way. (sg)