Dear representatives of the 6 Western Balkans countries, bilateral and multilateral donors and IFIs, dear colleagues
It is a great pleasure for me to be here today with you on the occasion of the 27th Western Balkans Investment Facility Project Financers' Group meeting.
The Western Balkans Investment Framework (WBIF) has proven to be a very successful platform contributing to the European perspective of the Western Balkans by supporting strategic investment projects and by strengthening regional cooperation and connectivity.
It is now 10 years since WBIF has started, during which, over €1 billion in grants were allocated for preparation and implementation of infrastructure projects through the WBIF.
We focus inevitably our work on moving forward with key reforms that are fundamental for EU accession such as rule of law. At the same time it is essential that in parallel, through support such as WBIF, we address key infrastructure needs to improve the living conditions of the citizens.
But what does investing in infrastructure mean? Here, in Albania, the WBIF supported 950km rural roads to be reconstructed, provided water supply and waste water treatment for about 450,000.00 people, has improved solid waste management for 370,000 people, 22 schools were rehabilitated and the health care infrastructure for 65,000 patients was improved. Overall, Albania has benefited from grants under WBIF umbrella of almost EUR 140 million.
WBIF also helped mobility through better connectivity. Approximately €200 million in investment grant per year is allocated to the Western Balkan beneficiaries for the implementation of large scale infrastructure investments in transport and energy sectors. Transport and energy links have improved, not least thanks to substantial EU assistance and the WBIF support. This included preparation and building of the "core transport and energy networks" linking all capitals, main economic centres and major ports.
I want to underline one aspect that I consider crucial: support to infrastructure should always be accompanied by progress in carrying out sector reforms. In this respect, WBIF also provides a framework for the engagement of IFIs in policy dialogue and reforms in transport, energy, water and other key sectors.
The framework is there but we need to do more and better. And do it together.
Obviously, it makes little sense to invest heavily in state of the art roads or railways if trucks or trains get stuck at the borders. Or investing in energy networks if then there are clustered or badly regulated markets.
Connectivity and construction of infrastructures need to be complemented by regional, institutional and regulatory measures which open markets, create a transparent regulatory framework, build investor confidence, and remove barriers.
We urgently need reforms such us the simplification of the border-crossing procedures and or the market reforms needed for energy integration.
This is why the Regional Economic Area is so important. As it was estimated, more than 80 000 jobs could be created throughout the Western Balkans through deeper economic integration. And deeper economic integration would also strengthen the region's resilience against global economic and geopolitical challenges.
Looking ahead, the Strategy for the WB and its initiatives for socio-economic development, transport and energy connectivity and digital agenda, serve as bases to make the WBIF more strategic and more efficient.
We should learn from the 10 years' experience in order to make most of the opportunity given and exploit the full potential of WBIF by linking better investment priorities and the strategic socio-economic priorities of the region.
We need to work on mature projects, realistic timelines and solid funding perspectives. And we need to focus on the implementation of the Regional Economic Area, to improve trade facilitation, investment and reinforce social inclusion
I am confident that the meeting today will contribute our reflection on the future of the WBIF and its support to the countries’ socio economic development.
The EU is committed to remain the main power of the region to boost trade, investments, governance, people-to-people actions and help moving ahead with much needed reforms.