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How can the macro-regional strategy for the Adriatic and Ionian region (EUSAIR) facilitate enlargement to the Western Balkans? This was discussed in a webinar last October
“EUSAIR is the only macro-regional strategy of the EU to involve more third countries than member countries; enlargement is therefore a central element of its work ”, underlined Giuseppe Di Paola, coordinator and program director of DG REGIO, at the opening of the EUSAIR facilitating the enlargement process in the environment sector co-organized by the OBCT and DG REGIO as part of the European Week of Regions and Cities which took place last October.
EUSAIR is the macro-regional strategy developed by the European Commission and the 9 countries of the Adriatic-Ionian region adopted in 2014 with the aim of promoting the socio-economic development of the region. The strategy brings together 4 members of the EU (Croatia, Greece, Italy and Slovenia) and 5 countries of the Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia).
The seminar was promoted to discuss the potential of cooperation between the Adriatic territories to promote the European path of the Western Balkans in the field of environmental policies, as already examined in a study carried out by the OBCT in collaboration with the CeSPI.
According to the study, the European strategy for the Adriatic-Ionian region offers several advantages for the enlargement policy in the Western Balkans. “In addition to encouraging horizontal cooperation and strengthening the regional identity of the countries concerned, EUSAIR stimulates contacts and exchanges of good practices between EU member countries and the Western Balkans, thus facilitating the adoption of standards and European standards by the latter “, explains Luisa Chiodi, scientific director of the OBCT and one of the authors of the analysis, adding that” the convergence of processes, strategies and funds (European and non-European) contributes to improve the administrative capacity of the Balkans, which is essential for the successful completion of the integration process “.
In addition, as Gilles Kittel, head of the EUSAIR team at DG REGIO, explained during the workshop last October, “thanks to its bottom-up nature and flexibility, EUSAIR can integrate the typically top-down approach. accession negotiations, facilitating faster access in the Western Balkans to certain EU policies and instruments ”.
The example of the environmental sector
Environmental protection has become a political and social priority in the Balkan region, where environmental movements and initiatives increasingly critical of the development policies of national governments have emerged over the past year. .
As underlined by the OBCT / CeSPI study, also in this specific sector, the high level of coherence between the objectives and the activities of the third priority axis of EUSAIR devoted to the quality of the environment and chapter 27 of the acquis Community confirms that the macro-regional strategy and the enlargement negotiations are mutually reinforcing processes.
Most of the Western Balkan countries have already achieved a good level of alignment with European environmental regulations. However, two main factors hinder its implementation: the significant costs associated with the green transition and the complex relationship between environmental protection and economic development.
So far, only Montenegro has opened negotiations on Chapter 27. Serbia, which presented its negotiating position in January 2020, received the green light from the Council last December, while Albania and Macedonia of the North are in the preparatory phase of screening, or assessment of the level of alignment of the national legal system with European regulations. On the other hand, the situation remains more complicated in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo which, unlike the other countries, remain only potential candidates for membership.
“Green civil society in Serbia is very active at both regional and national level, in particular in monitoring the integration process and adopting European regulations; however, what is often lacking is the political will to implement the provisions ”, underlined Milka Gvozdenovic, environmental sector coordinator of the NGO Young Researchers of Serbia, participating in the workshop last October.
To properly apply environmental legislation, strong political leadership and adequate resources are needed. This was explained during the seminar Madalina Ivanica, coordinator of the enlargement sector, bilateral, regional and international relations at DG ENV of the European Commission: “The Green Agenda for the Western Balkans – an instrument which has just been added to other documents drawn up by the European Commission to promote the European integration of the Balkans in the environmental field – is important to help countries move closer to European objectives in the fight against climate change and protection environment. However, Chapter 27 remains one of the most expensive of the whole acquis and therefore requires adequate funding “.
In this regard, an advantage of EUSAIR is that it makes it possible to maximize the use of the various European and non-European funds intended for environmental protection. As the OBCT / CeSPI study suggests, the European strategy can also stimulate the principle of “more for more”, that is to say, encourage the implementation of environmental measures and highlight the results obtained in order to ‘to obtain more financial resources for the countries which progress in the process of reform.
The creation of transnational working communities
Finally, one of the contributions that EUSAIR can make to enlargement is the fact that it is a catalyst for the creation of what can be defined as “working communities” between the different stakeholders involved in projects at the local level. Such working communities have emerged, for example, among the actors of territorial cooperation projects dedicated to environmental quality, including local communities, universities, research centers and civil society organizations.
For example, since 2014, several projects funded by the Interreg Adrion program have helped bring the Western Balkans closer to EU environmental directives. Some of them have, for example, enabled better management of marine protected areas in accordance with the European framework for marine spatial planning or the implementation of the European strategy for the protection of biodiversity. To take advantage of the advantages of so-called working communities, it is however necessary to create a bridge between the planning level and the political level, by transforming the experiences and skills acquired “on the ground” into a common heritage shared between all the organizations. subjects involved at local level and policy makers. EUSAIR’s contribution in this case was and could be to “extend” the experience of the individual project.
“EUSAIR has succeeded in promoting sustainable growth in the region, encouraging dialogue between institutions and stakeholders and helping to strengthen the administrative level in the countries concerned”, explained Mitja Bricelj, coordinator of the third priority axis of EUSAIR devoted to the environment in his speech at the October Workshop.
This inclusive approach and the emergence of participatory decision-making processes are particularly useful in the Western Balkans because they increase the democratic accountability of governments and help consolidate their democratic principles.
As Di Paola and Kittel noted, “although it cannot influence the political commitment of member countries – which remains essential for the potential of EUSAIR to have a positive impact on the enlargement process – EUSAIR offers nonetheless a useful platform to stimulate the exchange of experiences and good practices on concrete issues such as environmental protection, thus helping the countries of the Western Balkans to align with EU standards and policies ” .
From now on, the study carried out by the OBCT and the CeSPI is a starting point from which the DG REGIO of the European Commission intends to initiate a review of EUSAIR’s strategy and its governance in order to make it a capable platform. to strengthen synergies between participating countries to achieve common objectives.
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