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European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR)
News article1 March 2024Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations5 min read

Commissioner Várhelyi's remarks at the press conference of the “Growth and Convergence for the Western Balkans” Conference, in Tirana

Commissioner Várhelyi

Thank you so much, Prime Minister.

You may recall that it was only last November that we made this proposal, but I can also share a secret with you that the very basic idea of this whole growth plan was largely conceived here in this town, in previous discussions we had with the Prime Minister and with the other leaders of the region.

So, it's not only the idea of the European Commission or the European Union or even the European Council which has decided to set this up, but also the brainchild of the region itself.

And this is why I think you see today that this is the last day of February, and we are already talking about what are we going to implement precisely this year from it.

The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union is still working on the legislation to be passed so that the facility can be established, so the legislative work is still ongoing, and we are already discussing what will be done.

So today was also a big encouragement to us to move even faster.

The Prime Minister mentioned the SEPA, the single euro payment area, which is going to be a direct benefit for the businesses and the people.

But I want to also mention the Green Lanes, something that we started establishing during the COVID, but something that has already saved the people and the businesses only last year – and it's not even fully functional everywhere – 20 years of waiting time.

Twenty years of waiting time is gone, and it can be even more.

So these are the things that the people should immediately feel, see, touch, and be part of.

And this is the novelty, I think, of this whole plan, because of course Europe is always very bureaucratic and talking about plans, instruments, measures.

But this time I think we are also demonstrating what is the direct economic benefit of becoming a member, and what is the immediate social benefit also of becoming a member, because we can already share it with the region even before they join the European Union.

And the other very important element is that it means that the region can get ready for accession even faster, because it means that we are not negotiating in abstract terms when and how after the accession the EU law and the rules are going to be applied by the Western Balkan countries.

No, they already start applying these rules today.

So, by the time we get to the accession, this is going to be water under the bridge.

There will be nothing to talk about, because it's already going to be a reality.

The third element I want to also underline is that, of course, we are mindful that participating in a single market is also a question of competition.

And the competition in a single market is tough.

The competitiveness of our member states relative to the Western Balkans is still very, very strong.

So, it would be unfair to ask our Western Balkan partners to participate in a single market where they have less power to compete compared to our companies.

This is why we are also dedicating an additional funding to this plan to help all the reforms that are necessary to get these reforms done, because most of these reforms are also coming at cost, financial cost.

Financial cost for the businesses, financial cost for the government, financial cost for the society.

But we are ready to mitigate this impact.

This is why the leaders of the European Council have decided, without any amendment to our proposal in the MFF review – this is, I think, the only part of the MFF review that has been adopted without any debate or change – that 6 billion euros should help the region to get to the level of financial support that you see now within the European Union with the current cohesion of structural funds countries.

And we are not talking about abstract terms, we are talking about 2027.

By 2027, the region should enjoy the same level of aid intensity.

It means also that one can argue that it will be very difficult for the region to argue after 2027 that they are not ready to join.

And finally, the Prime Minister mentioned one other novel element, something that I think we borrowed from the region again, from the Open Balkan Initiative but also from the Berlin Process, and that is the Common Regional Market.

We have already started working on this with the Economic and Investment Plan, but I think now we have moved it to the next level, which means that – which means, if I want to put it in simple terms, if you want to be treated as an EU member, then you have to treat your fellow Western Balkan partners also as an EU member.

So if you take the example of the SEPA, this is all very nice that, for example, Albania will implement the legislative conditions of the SEPA very fast, but if there will be another Western Balkan country who is getting there and will implement it at the same time, it means that Albania will have to apply the exact same rules vis-à-vis the other members of the Western Balkans who are also applying the SEPA.

And it's not only, therefore, that running businesses will be cheaper when you are investing from the EU into Albania, but it also means that if you are doing business between Albania and other Western Balkan countries, your business costs will go down significantly.

So, this is also a direct benefit to the region.

But it only works – it only works, as the Prime Minister also underlined it – if the region is providing it to one another.

If they don't, then we are not able to help and provide the same treatment.

So, I think what you have seen today will change dramatically the realities on the ground.

According to our modest calculations, this plan, together with the Economic and Investment Plan – you should combine always these, because one is built on top of the other – the region should be able to double its economy in the next 10 years.

Thank you.