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. It would also stem the brain drain by offering young people from the Western Balkans more opportunities for education and work and clear prospects for their future.
"Regional and global integration, including strong connections to the European value chains, would be a stepping stone for European integration", emphasised Ekaterina Vostroknutova, Lead Economist for Eastern Europe and Central Asia Region at the World Bank. In his agenda for social cohesion in the Western Balkans, Dr. William Bartlett, coordinator of the LSE Research Network on Social Cohesion in South-Eastern Europe, highlighted the importance of addressing the skill gaps and skill mismatches by improving the efficiency and effectiveness of educational systems and support for inclusive growth by increasing the progressivity of the countries' tax systems.
All the participants 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.
The public hearing will contribute to the EESC's work on its exploratory opinion, requested by the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU, which is expected to be presented at the EESC's plenary session in April 2018. Furthermore, the EESC will be holding a civil society Conference on EU-Western Balkans relations in Sofia on 15 May 2018, under the title "Economic and social cohesion in the Western Balkans – a civil society point of view". The Conference is planned as an opportunity for organised civil society to contribute to the EU-Western Balkans Heads of State Summit, scheduled to take place in Sofia on 17 May 2018.