Unlocking the Future: Western Balkans Unite for Smart Cities
The Western Balkans, a region with a GDP that accounts for less than 1% of the European Union’s GDP, stands at a crucial crossroads in its integration and sustainable development journey. The Civil Society Forum of the Western Balkans (CSF WB), a platform that brings together think tanks and policy-oriented civil society organizations from the region, organized as part of the Berlin Process Summit, has shed light on the imperative need for a united effort to address the challenges of the region. At the Summit of Berlin Process, civil society organizations are advocating for deepening regional cooperation and enhancing financial mechanisms to bridge the socio-economic gap with the EU. Majlinda Bregu (Regional Cooperation Council, Secretary General) emphasized in her opening remarks that in times of multi-crises and security threats, unlocking economic potential while ensuring democratic transformation is critical. The Regional Advocacy Network was invited to become part of the forum as a participant and contributor.
Eco-Agencies to bring Green Agenda ahead
Montenegro is the only country in the Western Balkans that manages an Eco Fund created by the Government and dedicated to financing environmental protection projects, climate change, energy efficiency, and renewable energy. Drasko Boljevic, Executive Director of the Eco Fund, shed light on the Fund’s significant contributions, including financing electric cars for the private and public sectors, photovoltaic panels and renewable energy projects, and subsidizing waste management. The budget allocated for 2023 amounts to EUR 9.3 million, showcasing the potential for green investments.
Building Capacities for Green Initiatives
Investing in green infrastructure and sustainability comes with a high price. In this regard, the investment required to meet Chapter 27 requirements varies between countries: EUR 12 billion for Serbia and North Macedonia, 483 million for Montenegro, and 3.5 billion for Albania. This necessitates an increase in human capacities with green skills. Yet, having knowledgeable people is not enough, as projects must be ready to go. Joint efforts at the regional level are crucial to managing concrete projects. Decision-making must be more transparent, and accountability must improve. The partnership between government and non-government stakeholders must be genuine. Furthermore, Government stakeholders should know that the NGO sector is there to criticize, not just to build interest-based relationships. Radica Koceva, IPA Management Expert, emphasized that projects must be anchored in government reforms, and ultimately, green investments must be prioritized based on the interest of citizens who must understand the benefit.
Deregulations, Transparency, and “Leave No One Behind Principle” in Managing The Green Transition
Petrica Dulgheru, Chairman of the Board of the Roma Economic Development Initiative, shared a remarkable example from Belgium, highlighting the need for people-centered approaches in green initiatives. He explained that he and his wife earn more than the average population in Belgium, being from Romania. One morning, authorities knocked on their door and informed them that their apartment belonged to the sunniest bandages in the city. They asked permission to work 3-4 hours on their roof and install solar panels; afterward, they would have free electricity. They paid nothing. On the contrary, in Western Balkan countries, even when there is a subsidy for renewable or energy efficiency projects for businesses and residents, many rules must be fulfilled and complied with. Furthermore, citizens or businesses are often not well-informed about opportunities. Vulnerable populations, such as Roma people, are disproportionately affected.
Since all Western Balkans countries have a boom in the construction sector in common, the Regional Advocacy Network proposed introducing green licensing and building permission, at least for public buildings and those of many floors. If these buildings are not designed today as green, Western Balkans taxpayers will have to pay a higher price for them in the future. In this regard, building a partnership between the private and public sectors is important.
Final recommendations of Forum on Green Transition
The forum concluded with recommendations that can serve as a blueprint for the Western Balkans’ journey toward a greener and more sustainable future.
Improving Green Infrastructure Investment
The European Union should enhance its support to the Western Balkan countries by establishing a funding mechanism built on solidarity and a multi-level governance approach.
Western Balkan Countries, international organizations, and financial institutions should all work towards establishing a “Western Balkan 6 Regional Hub focused on Infrastructure Projects.”
European Union and Western Balkan countries should ensure sufficient financial and administrative support to the private sector in the region, encouraging them to make sustained efforts towards a blue and green/circular economy
Strengthen good governance in environment and climate as an essential element for the implementation of the green agenda
Prime Ministers, Minister of Finance, and Minister of Environments in the Western Balkans should take swift action to enhance the capacities of national and subnational authorities entrusted with environmental and climate change responsibility
The process of enhancing administrative capabilities should be expedited, considering the urgency of the matter
Increase investments in biodiversity and protection of natural resources, which are at the heart of climate change mitigation and adoption
Leaders of Western Balkan countries should take decisive measures in securing sustainable funding dedicated to the preservation and restoration of the region’s invaluable natural resources
Western Balkan countries should proactively align their policies with the EU Biodiversity strategy for 2030 – “Bringing Nature back into our Lives”
The European Union should ascertain a minimum of 30% of its climate funding for the Western Balkan countries to be invested in biodiversity and nature-based solution
The Civil Society Forum of the Western Balkans has provided a platform for stakeholders to unite their efforts to green the region. The recommendations and insights shared during the forum underscore the importance of collaborative action and investment in sustainable infrastructure, environmental protection, and governance reforms. As the Western Balkans work towards integration and sustainable development, these efforts can pave the way for a brighter and greener future for the region.