EESK:s yttrande: Economic and social cohesion and European integration of the Western Balkans – challenges and priorities (exploratory opinion at the request of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council)
The EESC welcomes the fact that the EU integration of the Western Balkan countries and their economic and social cohesion is one of the priorities of the Bulgarian Presidency. It proposes that the integration of the Western Balkan countries be one of the top priorities of the EU in the future, provided that these countries continue on their path towards fulfilling the necessary conditions for EU accession. The EESC is convinced that the enlargement of the EU, and in particular the spread of its democratic values and legal standards to the Western Balkan region, is in the interest of both the Western Balkan countries and the EU.
The EESC welcomes the EU-Western Balkans heads of states and governments summit to be held on 17 May in Sofia and is committed to organising, ahead of each such a summit, a joint event with representatives of civil society organisations from the Western Balkans and the EU. The EESC calls the heads of states at the EU summit in Sofia to set out their clear commitment to more consistent and direct support for civil society organisations at all levels.
The EESC recommends that social, economic and territorial cohesion be assessed when evaluating the fulfilment of EU membership criteria. It believes that respect for the rule of law and minority rights is of paramount importance for the democratic, economic and social development of the countries of the Western Balkans. It also believes that the role of education and of a free and independent media is very important in order to overcome the disputes of the past and enhance democratic values.
The EESC welcomes the Commission's new strategy for the Western Balkans "A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans" and its six flagship initiatives. The EESC expresses its readiness to engage with civil society from the Western Balkans in order to contribute to taking concrete action in the areas of rule of law, security and migration, socio-economic development, connectivity, digital agenda and reconciliation and good neighbourly relations, as stipulated in the Action Plan in Support of the Transformation of the Western Balkans for 2018-2020.
Social partners and other civil society organisations, both at EU and national level, must be meaningfully involved in the entire process of the EU integration of the Western Balkan countries. The EESC proposes that the EU institutions consider having a functioning social and civil dialogue at national level as one of the criteria for EU membership.