Integration of Western Balkans should remain a top EU priority

EU enlargement, and above all the spread of EU democratic values and legal standards to the Western Balkan region, is in the interests of both the Western Balkan countries and the EU, the European Economic and Social Committee points out in its opinion on the Economic and social cohesion and European integration of the Western Balkans, adopted at its plenary session on 19 April.

"It is crucial that accession of the Western Balkans remain an EU priority," said Andrej Zorko, rapporteur for the EESC's opinion. "Promoting EU values in the region guarantees security and stability and enhances social and economic development, as well as democracy and the rule of law, in these countries. And this in turn means stability and security to the EU. It is very important that civil society, including the social partners, play an active role in this process."

Corruption, organised crime, the general weakness of state institutions and the rule of law, and discrimination against minority groups are some of the problems that the Western Balkan countries are facing. Their economies continue to grow but the six countries still remain among the poorest in Europe. It is estimated that full convergence with EU living standards could take as long as 40 years. The EESC therefore believes that the European Commission should develop specific programmes for faster social and economic convergence of the Western Balkans.

"The EESC notes that the EU accession process remains a key factor motivating reform in the countries of the Western Balkans," said Dimitris Dimitriadis, co-rapporteur for the EESC's opinion. "The EESC points to the lack of attention paid to the economic and social effects of the reforms carried out, in light of the major differences in economic and social security between the EU Member States and the candidate countries. The EESC consequently recommends that social, economic and territorial cohesion be assessed when evaluating the fulfilment of EU membership criteria." (sg)