Balkan 'Benelux' would speed up EU entry
Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro should join forces to build a new and permanent co-operation structure aimed at boosting their political and economic relations, with a final common goal of accelerating EU membership.
The EU calls on Balkan countries on an almost daily basis to increase regional co-operation and implement EU-set reforms. This should be encouraged. But existing regional forums are mostly informal and do little in concrete terms for regional or EU integration.
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We believe it is high time for change and this is why we propose the creation of a Benelux-type structure bringing together Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro.
The new structure would give fresh impetus to preparations for EU membership and would help the four countries better compete with well-established EU economies once they join.
It would create a market of 8 million people with free movement of goods, services, capital and people as of end-2012, bringing immediate benefits instead of waiting for EU accession.
The agenda is ambitious. But there is no time to lose: people need growth, they need jobs and better living conditions - a reason to stay instead of seeking their fortune abroad.
The case is acute in Kosovo, the least developed of the four nations.
The sad truth is that EU accession might take a long time. Croatia achieved full territorial sovereignty in 1995 and is to join the EU in 2013. If we consider that Kosovo is today where Croatia was in 1995, we might envisage EU accession in 2030. That is too long.
The new structure should prioritise trade and customs facilitation, the fight against organised crime, local development of border regions, infrastructure, the environment, energy and the development a regional financial market.
It could start with an inter-governmental treaty between Albania and Kosovo, creating a technocratic secretariat to implement measures, and follow up with invitations for Macedonia and Montenegro to join.
It is important to convince the international audience that this is not some kind of greater Albania through the back door.
Such a secretariat could develop an integration agenda, screen government actions for compatibility and lobby them to stay on track.
It could also promote best practice - as with the success stories of e-procurement in Albania, the creation of an online land registry in Montenegro, business laws in Macedonia and police training in Kosovo.
The region already has its clubs: the Regional Co-operation Council based in Sarajevo and the so-called Seeto group for infrastructure projects based in Belgrade.
But the four neighbouring countries are a good fit - they are all highly competitive when it comes to attracting foreign investors and they have a different history and ethnic mix than Bosnia and Serbia in the north.
Kosovo's ever-growing trade deficit puts it at the centre of this project.
It recently won the right to export goods to and via Serbia. But it remains to be seen whether this will mean big volumes in the short-term. Diaspora remittances are drying up. Foreign investment is a pipe dream. Its small businesses need to access regional markets.
Albania, Montenegro and Macedonia can also serve as stepping-stones for Kosovo towards Italy, Greece and the rest of the EU.
Creation of joint corporations in several sectors between enterprises from different sectors of the four countries should also be encouraged.
As with the Benelux, the Nordic Council and the Visegrad club, their co-operation can and will continue even when thy become full members of the EU.
Joint challenges will remain
The southern Balkans will stay at the periphery of the Balkans and of Europe and will need friends who work hard to support them and try to attract attention and investors.
Despite the beauty of the Montenegro landscape, the white beaches of Albania, the historic monasteries of Macedonia and the natural treasures of Trepca in Kosovo, there is no automatic prosperity a-la-Kuwait waiting in the wings.
Development will be much faster if borders are put aside and economic co-operation, backed by EU and US support, becomes the four countries' top priority.
Gunther Fehlinger is a Austrian economist living in Albania and Ekrem Krasniqi is a Kosovo-born journalist living in Brussels