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Territorial cohesion on the Western Balkan?

June 2022

In terms of territorial development and governance, the Western Balkan region is a highly interesting and dynamic place. The region is characterised by internal dynamics and territorial features which emphasise domestic and interregional specificities for cohesion, revealing a long-term evolution of territorially asymmetrical disparities.

The Western Balkan Network on Territorial Governance (Opens in a new window)  had its 5th annual meeting end of May in Tirana. The focus of the meeting was on pathways towards cohesion. For two days there was a lively exchange on cohesion challenges, trends, gaps and policy recommendations among participants from civil society organisations, universities, private and public bodies from all over the Western Balkans and beyond.

The cohesion challenges identified in the EU 8th Cohesion Report apply by and large also to the Western Balkan countries. This concerns territorial disparities and dynamics at various geographical levels. These range from cohesion issues within the single Western Balkan countries, via those within the [Western] Balkan region, to the role of the Western Balkan in a larger European context.

The discussion centred on the infrastructural dimension of cohesion, demographic trends, education, and the political dimension linked at least to EU integration. Also, the discussion was in no way conclusive; it could be read as a plea for a positive vision on the Western Balkan´s role for cohesion in Europe. It also emphasised the necessity to shift away from a geopolitical definition of the region, which may insinuate isolation, to the Balkans macro-region as a step towards proposing instruments for cohesion.

Infrastructure & cohesion

Transport infrastructure networks are still an essential precondition for territorial development and cohesion in the Western Balkan region. A prominent example in this context is the Connectivity Agenda.

The Western Balkans have made the Connectivity Agenda one of their highest priorities, with a special emphasis on the preparation and financing of concrete regional infrastructure investment projects and on the implementation of technical standards and reform measures (e.g. aligning/simplifying border crossing procedures, railway reforms, information systems, road safety and maintenance schemes, unbundling and third-party access).

Since the start of its implementation in 2014, the Connectivity Agenda has produced varied results due to exposure towards structural weaknesses, such as insufficient administrative capacities, small fiscal space for infrastructure, and lack of political will. Neither IPA, nor the Connectivity Agenda were designed to deal with these structural weaknesses. As a result, the implementation pace and absorption capacity have been territorially uneven, and so has been the potential territorial convergence. In addition, regardless of investments, the WB countries persistently show a pattern of monocentric territorial development with capital cities diverging from the rest or territories, except for few historically more developed regions, or regions that have better connectivity across the borders. In this context, skills and entrepreneurship are also more concentrated in the capitals, due to better access to education and services of general interest and to support for boosting productivity. Even if convergence may have improved on an overall level, the uncertainty over its sustainability remains because higher wages (due to current investments) and slowly increasing productivity (in the less developed areas) will make the peripheral regions lose their low-cost advantage. Some of the governments are planning to rely on migratory flows, but migrants are headed towards EU countries. Additionally, any demographic disbalance between local populations and newcomers would trigger social and cultural conflicts, further contributing to disparities.

On the other hand, the ’Roam Like at Home’ regime in the Western Balkans has been highlighted as a successful example of integration and reducing barriers. Since July 2021, all roaming costs within the region have been eliminated. Non-payment of roaming is expected to facilitate the endeavour of achieving the four freedoms of movement of people, goods, services, and capital, following the example of the EU. Indeed, setting up a roaming-free zone was also a significant step of the Western Balkans in aligning with the EU Digital Single Market principles and practices.

Integration & cohesion

Western Balkan and EU integration were underlying features of all cohesion debates at the meeting. This ranged from the discussion of Europeanisation of regional policies, to access to education exchange, and studies on tax behaviour in North Macedonia and Albania.

EU integration is seen as an important driver of change in the countries. This includes strengthening civil society, government accountability, as well as various sector policies addressing e.g. sustainable development or urban policies. The Serbian preparation workshops for the UN World Urban Forum in Katowice in June 2022 were highlighted as good examples. The bottom-up dialogues in Serbian cities to contribute to the UN forum and sketch possible transition pathways, could actually be a starting point for similar events linking cities across the Western Balkan region.

Despite all the stimulating examples discussed, many challenges remain. The solutions to the most important challenges are often linked to geopolitical developments and the way the EU treats or positions towards the Western Balkan region. While many civil society organisations in the Western Balkan are in support of an EU accession, they have little influence on geopolitical processes. There is furthermore a growing risk that people get tired of long-winded EU talks and accession aspirations. Losing confidence for a future in the EU provides openings for other geopolitical players including China, Russia or Turkey.

A common feature for all of these, is often that the Western Balkan countries are perceived as being constantly on an ‘asking mode’ and at the same time as potential markets for the EU member countries. This raises the questions, what if tables are turned. Instead of focusing on what support, benefits etc. the Western Balkan countries are receiving in case of a closer integration, the narrative could focus on what the countries have to offer. What could be the contribution of the Western Balkans to cohesion in Europe in 2050 – linking to the 8th Cohesion Report of the EU – or the objectives of the EU Green Deal?

Vision 2050?

Could we imagine a vision for 2050 in which the Western Balkan makes a major contribution which helps the EU achieve its objectives?

This might need some out of the box thinking in terms of how we understand development and cohesion. Focusing on the assets of the Western Balkan region, the enhancement, protection of biodiversity, and therefore delivery of ecosystem services might be one option. If ecosystem services, including a rich biodiversity, are valued as important assets for future livelihood, not merely of the region, there could be a starting point. Places for the production of renewable energy to help the energy transition and carbon neutral future could be another asset. These are certainly only starting points, but maybe it would be the time to develop a vision of Europe showing what the Western Balkans can contribute.

To start with, maybe revisit the vision for territorial development and governance, (Opens in a new window) developed during the 2ndmeeting Western Balkan Network on Territorial Governance, in 2019 in Skopje. 

by Kai Böhme and Rudina Toto (Opens in a new window) (Opens in a new window)

Topic Cohesion (policy)
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