Tuesday

31st Jan 2023

Opinion

Let us help protect EU funds in Balkans, NGOs say

  • Close up euro banknote showing the Western Balkans region (Photo: Alessandro Marotta)
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There is a stretch of brand new, EU-funded railway line from the town of Bitola in North Macedonia to the Greek border.

It was finally finished in 2019 after changes of contractors, delays, and extra funds being spent, but to this day, no train has ever used it, putting into doubt the utility of the whole project.

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This kind of thing that would be less likely to happen if the EU listened more to specialised NGOs from the region, who have the local knowledge to highlight problems.

The EU has earmarked €9bn for infrastructure and growth-fuelling projects in the Western Balkans and seeks to raise additional €20bn in loans and private financing for the 2021-2027 period.

But Western Balkan countries score poorly in terms of good governance and in the fight against corruption.

And as the EU plans to disburse unprecedented amounts of its taxpayers' money to the region, it would be wise to listen to its civil-society watchdogs, who share European values.

The empty railway line is just one of several examples highlighting the challenge to ensure that EU money is spent according to best practice.

North Macedonia is planning to build highway, railway, gas, and electricity infrastructure through a Unesco-protected natural site near Lake Ohrid.

And there have been serious irregularities in public-tender procedures on metro and highway projects in Serbia and Albania, as well as accusations of bribery and money-laundering in North Macedonia.

Western Balkan governance issues and structural weaknesses directly impact the efficient implementation of infrastructure projects.

The short-term interests of the local political elites and structures in charge of decision-making do not always overlap with the long-term developmental needs of the country and its citizens.

Even putting alleged corruption aside, the consequences of mismanagement usually include additional costs, project delays, environmental harm and, in some cases, project failure.

If the EU really wants its €29bn to to support the region's post-pandemic recovery and enhance its economic convergence, it needs more local eyes and ears on the ground to point out snags.

Specialised NGOs and think-tanks in the Western Balkans have engaged in informal monitoring of specific projects in the EU's connectivity agenda already since 2015.

But with so much money at stake, the time is now ripe for a more systematic approach, which would embed NGO experts in the EU's budgetary-decision making structures on Western Balkans infrastructure projects.

More than 20 specialised Western Balkan NGOs and think-tanks recently requested to be a part of the EU's new budget-governance mechanism by signing an open letter to EU Institutions.

It can be accessed here and the initiative is open to all other organisations keen to contribute to this endeavour.

Closer NGO inclusion will increase transparency and accountability and help to overcome the entrenched, structural weaknesses of Western Balkans' public institutions.

That is the only way to ensure that EU taxpayers' cash leads to tangible reform and supports the broader EU-sponsored project of bringing the Western Balkans up to European standards.

Author bio

Ana Krstinovska is from Estima, a Skopje-based think-tank. Ardian Hackaj is from the Cooperation and Development Institute in Tirana. Leila Bičakčić is from the Centre for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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