Dear honourable members,
It is a real pleasure for me to be with you today in this House, despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. I am starting my visit to the region here in North Macedonia to give a clear message – 2020 has been a historic and long-awaited year for your country, and you can count on me to support you to further advance on the EU path.
The Western Balkans are a priority for the EU. Thefuture of the whole region lies in the European Union and it is in our strategic interest to bring the region closer to the EU, as it is your strategic interest to join the EU.
With this mindset, this Commission has been working on three main tracks for the Western Balkans in 2020: to reinforce and renew the enlargement process, to open negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania and to speed up the economic convergence of the region with the EU.
On the first two objectives, we have already taken a number of significant steps and decisions this year. We have overcome the deadlock in Council on opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania thanks to the revised enlargement methodology. The Commission has already proposed negotiations frameworks for both countries and discussions are ongoing in the Council. We hope that soon after Member States agree on the frameworks, the first intergovernmental conferences can be convened to officially begin negotiations.
As regards economic convergence, the pandemic makes it even more challenging. We have put our efforts first into providing significant emergency assistance to the region, and second to help the economy recover.
Our focus is now on supporting the longer-term socioeconomic recovery of the region and its economic convergence with the EU. There is an enormous gap in terms of economic development between your region and the EU. The faster we close that gap, the faster we start creating resilient, strong, and sustainable market economies, the faster you will be able to join us.
This is why we have prepared the Economic and Investment plan, which was adopted yesterday.
This Economic and Investment Plan serves to spur the long-term recovery through a substantial investment package leading to sustained economic growth, implementation of reforms required to move forward on the EU path, and bringing the Western Balkans closer to the EU Single Market. The investment package is structured around the key areas of crucial importance: transport, energy, environment, digital, the private sector and youth.
The Economic and Investment Plan sets out a substantial investment package for the region. The Commission aims to mobilise indicatively up to €9 billion of grant funding under the future Instrument of Pre-Accession Assistance III to support the economic convergence of the region with the EU.
In addition, the investment capacity of the region should be boosted by the mobilisation of a new Western Balkans Guarantee facility, with the ambition to potentially raise investments of up to €20 billion. This is all together around 30% of the whole region.
North Macedonia is very much part of this plan and your citizens and businesses will directly benefit from it. In the area of transport, the Plan includes notably Railway corridor VIII highway (linking up Skopje to Bulgaria). In the area of energy, the Plan includes the North Macedonia - Kosovo and North Macedonia – Serbia Gas interconnectors, which will contribute to North Macedonia’s energy diversification. In addition, the Plan will support renewable energies, including the construction of Wind and Solar Power Plants. Finally, in the crucial area of environment, the Plan focuses on the construction of wastewater treatment plants in Skopje and integrated regional waste management systems. Those major investments will complement existing projects already supported as part of our bilateral assistance, such as the important investments to develop the rail network to enhance connectivity.
The package will allow the region, over the next four years, to emerge stronger from the COVID-19 pandemic and lay the foundations for developing connected, competitive, knowledge-based, sustainable, innovation oriented and thriving economies in the Western Balkans, with increasingly dynamic private sectors.
This Plan is accompanied by a Green Agenda for the Western Balkans, based on the approach of the European Green Deal. It offers a way forward for joint action to tackle the challenges of green transition, climate change, biodiversity loss, and excessive use of resources and pollution, decoupling economic growth from resource use and environmental degradation. Particular attention will be paid to the EU commitment to reach climate neutrality by 2050.
With the Economic and Investment Plan we aim to bring the region closer to the EU and to foster regional cooperation. In this regard, we welcome the decisive steps the region took in the midst of the pandemic. With the successful establishment of “green lanes” within the region, we saw inclusive regional cooperation at its best. This success should inspire the future of regional economic integration.
For the past six months, Western Balkans governments, together with the secretariats of the Regional Cooperation Council and of CEFTA, and with the support of the Commission, have been engaged in developing a new vision for the regional economic area. I look forward to the Leaders of the Western Balkans agreeing an ambitious action plan to develop a common regional market at the Sofia Summit on 10 November, which you will co-chair with Bulgaria. This is critical to increase the attractiveness and competitiveness of the region.
Regional economic integration is not a detour on the European path, but a tool to enhance growth, to overcome the COVID economic crisis, to modernise the economies in line with the EU priorities and bring them closer to the EU internal market. It is an integral part of the region's EU accession process.
However, boosting investment and economic growth in the Western Balkans will only be possible if governments firmly commit to and implement fundamental reforms based on European values. Whether structural economic reforms, strengthening the rule of law, or improving public administration, these reforms are essential for an environment favourable to entrepreneurship, job creation and sustainable investment.
In this regard, the 2020 Enlargement package, together with the economic and investment plan, provides a detailed overview of the state of play of fundamental reforms and guidance on these reform priorities, which remain at the heart of the EU accession process. These fundamentals remain the essential conditions that need to be met, not only to make a success of the economic and investment plan, but also to move forward on the EU path.
The package of reports assesses the implementation of the EU enlargement policy, takes stock of where the countries stand in implementing key political and economic reforms, and make clear recommendations for each of the countries for the period ahead.
For North Macedonia, the decision to open accession negotiations earlier this year was truly historic. The country has maintained a steady pace of progress and further delivered on key areas of rule of law, including the judiciary, fight against corruption and organised crime. It is important that you keep up this momentum. The fight against corruption needs to continue unabated and further efforts are needed to ensure full respect for the principle of transparency and meritocracy in the Public Administration Reform.
I am encouraged by the commitment of the new government to further advance the EU reform agenda, in particular in the key areas of the fundamentals. This House, as the primary forum for constructive and inclusive debates has a key role to play. We need you to deliver! We have seen with concern the increase of the use of fast track procedures in the adoption of new legislation. I encourage you to ensure proper consultations and democratic debates by using normal procedures. This House has also a key role to play when it comes to ensuring checks and balances by strengthening the oversight over the executive and the intelligence services.
More generally, it is important to have clear coordination and work planning between the government and the Assembly. You need to know what EU related laws or reports are coming your way, to properly plan the work of committees and plenary, also to play your role in supporting and monitoring the negotiation phase.
To wrap up, the past year has overall been a very dynamic and challenging one. For me, the COVID-19 pandemic confirmed very clearly the need for European and international cooperation. The EU’s closest neighbours, including North Macedonia, play a special role in that cooperation, as we have demonstrated since the beginning of the pandemic. We need to build on this, to help our economies recover faster and make our societies more resilient, which will in turn enable us to better face future challenges, together.
This is a first day of the new beginning!