For Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia, veritable EU adhesion is still far away (the first prospected date for Belgrade and Podgorica is 2025). However, their economies are strongly linked to Member Countries: the EU is the first “donor” in the region with 10 billion direct investments in the last five years, and also the largest trading partner. In fact, the six countries of the Western Balkans represent a market of 18 million people in constant growth, not to be underestimated.
Connectivity is key. In this respect, the key-word during the last informal EU-Western Balkans summit held past May in Sofia was “connectivity”, i.e. investments to improve infrastructure and communication both within the region and between the Balkans and the rest of the European Union. It is also one of the six flagship initiatives meant to support the transformation of the Western Balkans, resulting from the “Strategy for the European integration of the Western Balkans”, published past February. For the European Commission, “investing in transport, energy and the digital economy means investing in the economic development of the region”, while “increasing transport and energy connections will allow for increased competitiveness, economic growth and security of supply” . The EU has also decided to expand the Energy Union to the Western Balkans in order to lower the coast or roaming as of this summer, and support the deployment of broadband in the region with a 30 million investment package. Improved well-being and regional cooperation are expected to further anchor peace and democracy in the Balkans, thereby ensuring good neighbourly relations and securing the region’s role as a strategic ally of the European Union.
An Agenda for the region. The road networks of Balkan Countries date back to the era of Communism and economic dictatorships, and they are rarely in good conditions. Most have remained they way they were in the 1980s, with poor maintenance. Thus investing in transport and energy infrastructures is crucial for the region. For this reason in 2014 Western Balkan Countries, in cooperation with the European Commission, created a regional connectivity agenda with up to €1 billion in grants. As many as 31 projects have been adopted to date since the 2015 Vienna summit (attended by Balkan countries as well as by Germany, Austria, France and Italy) in the framework of the Connectivity agenda. Follow some of the latest projects in the framework of the fourth connectivity agenda that includes 11 infrastructure projects funded with a €190 Million EU grant.
Serbia – Kosovo road interconnection. Today the route connecting Belgrade to Pristine passes through Skopje. It is not a joke (even if a look at the map will raise some doubts!), but an example of everyday life in the Balkans. A specific EU project is directed at the creation of a road interconnection from Nis (Serbia), through Merdare, on the border with Kosovo, up to Pristina. The project will build a highway in the first sections on Serbian territory – 33 km up to Plocnik, and 37km up to the border, which presently consists of two lanes that go through urban areas; while the last 23-km section in Kosovo is at a preliminary design stage.
Tirana-Skopje connection. Bukojcani-Kicevo is a 13km subsection of the Gostivar-Kicevo section (42 km). This 105.2-million-euro investment project covers the first phase. The two towns are now connected by a road which was built almost 40 years ago, poorly maintained, with a speed limit of 70 km/h. Once completed the new road will connect to the existing motorway to Skopje as well as to the highway that is being built to Ohrid.
Reconstruction of Durres Port. Duress is the largest port in Albania, one of the largest in the Adriatic that handles 78% of the country’s maritime exchange in tonnage and 75% of all trade. The project will reconstruct Quays 1 and 2 on the Western Terminal, that requires urgent reconstruction owing to corrosion of structural elements below sea level. EU grants cover 50% of the total costs, amounting to 62.5 million euro.
Sarajevo, “isolated” capital. Over a thousand kilometres of the road network of Bosnia and Herzegovina are part of the European network, mostly consisting of two-lane roads with a maximum speed of 80 km /h. Perhaps this is why Sarajevo is considered the most difficult European capital to get to. Thanks to support from the EU, Bosnia has begun a road construction project, especially along the Mediterranean corridor that will collect Budapest (Hungary) via Bosnia-Herzegovina to Croatia, at Port Ploce. The longest section, approximately 335 km, runs through Bosnia-Herzegovina, 35% of which has already been completed or is being completed. Seven sections of the corridor have already benefited from EU grants.
Budva bypass. Budva, an ancient port in Montenegro, is located along the so-called “blue corridor”, the highway along the Ionic-Adriatic coast that extends from Croatia to Albania. The existing road suffers from heavy congestion during the summer months when traffic reaches more than 30,000 vehicles/day and is full of potholes. The bypass project extends for 8.2km, amounting to 187.4 million euro.
Necessary reforms. “Cross- border infrastructures make sense if they are complemented by reforms that allow people and businesses to take full advantage of transport and energy links”, said EU Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn. These are emblematic words for the European future of the Western Balkans, for once the reforms are implemented, in addition to EU adhesion. citizens, who hope that the connectivity agenda may soon become reality. will be the main recipients.