At its March plenary session, the European Economic and Social Committee hosted a debate with Olivér Várhelyi, Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, to discuss the state of play of the accession of the Western Balkan partners. EESC members voiced the conviction that integrating the Western Balkan partners into the EU is a geostrategic investment in peace and economic growth.

The president of the EESC, Christa Schweng, opened the debate by stressing that the EESC attaches great importance to the EU enlargement to the Western Balkans: "Our Committee considers the Western Balkans as the missing piece of the puzzle in the European Union's ambition of creating a united and sustainable Europe, a Europe fit for the future," she said.

Óliver Várhelyi mentioned the impact the COVID-19 pandemic had had on the Western Balkans and stressed that "the European Commission is determined to continue supporting our closest neighbours with all it means in these difficult times". Mr Várhelyi also presented the Commission's Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans, a EUR 9 billion initiative with the twin objectives of kick-starting economic recovery and improving the region's convergence with the European Union. "The plan's ambition is to boost not only the region's economic development, resilience and competitiveness, but also its social cohesion. We must work together to achieve this," stressed Mr Várhelyi.

The debate was followed by the adoption of an opinion on Enhancing the accession process – A credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans. The opinion rapporteur, Andrej Zorko, highlighted the importance of the enlargement process: "Integrating the Western Balkan partners into the EU represents a geostrategic investment in peace, stability, security and economic growth across the entire continent," he said. (dfg)