EDIT, in partnership with Google kickstarts a national digital roadshow
The European integration of the Western Balkans is a strategic choice which will lead to reconciliation, economic growth, and enhanced cooperation in the region.
This was the central argument which was agreed upon by all speakers in the debate "Western Balkans - EU: What to expect from the Summit?", organized by MOVE.BG, one week before the historic meeting in Sofia.
Why are we calling the Summit a historic meeting, however, before it has actually taken place? When the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU announced that the Western Balkans and its integration would be one of the main priorities of the Presidency, the decision was met with mild scepticism in Europe. The reality in the region, which has been well-known to both policymakers and citizens, is that there are too many unresolved issues which have long undermined the success of the Accession process. Nevertheless, the last few months have shown that with political will and societal consensus, there is no conundrum which cannot be solved. The start of this process was seen with the signing of the Treaty of friendship, good neighbourly relations and cooperation between the governments of Bulgaria and Macedonia, which turned a new page in diplomatic relations between the two countries. Moreover, increased communication between the leaders of the Western Balkan countries can be observed, one which clearly articulates their desire for a shared future within the European community.
During the Summit in Sofia, heads of states from both the EU Members States and the Western Balkans will participate with the aim to support these cooperation and collaboration efforts in the region. The Summit will also give an opportunity for the EU to re-emphasise its commitment to the region as one which belongs in the European family. Key aspects that will be highlighted throughout the Summit will include cooperation in the field of infrastructure, digital and people-to-people connectivity.
The European integration of the Western Balkans is a multifaceted process!
It has an impact not only on the political development of the region but also on the opportunities for business development and cooperation in various fields such as youth policy, education, science and social issues. To look into this process in-depth but also comprehensively, we invited experts from different fields such as Andrey Kovachev - Bulgarian MEP and Vice-President of the European People's Party (EPP) and deputy member of the Delegation to the EU - Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia; Genka Georgieva - Director for "Policies and institutions of the European Union" in the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Ivaylo Nachev from the Institute for Balkans and Thracology; Max Gurvits - American and European entrepreneur and investor and Director for Central and Eastern Europe at Cross Border Angels. Furthermore, we included experts from the region itself as part of the conversation, such as Executive Director of the Vojvodina ICT Cluster Milan Solaja and Ivan Nikolovski - President of the Young European Federalists (JEF) in Macedonia. The debate was moderated by Sasha Bezuhanova, founder and chair of MOVE.BG.
The discussion kicked off with the participation of Dr Ivaylo Nachev
He outlined briefly the history of the region and highlighted events which impacted on its relations with the rest of Europe:
"The breakup of Yugoslavia and subsequent wars created new borders and conflicts that continue even today. We can draw valuable lessons from these past events in order to solve the issues we face presently."
Presenting the complex history of the Balkans, he stressed that past events which directly affect the Accession process nowadays are mainly linked to the period of the 80s and 90s. Such events are related to conflicts in the region, the redrawing of the national borders, and the resulting increased extreme nationalistic positions which have divided the region. Mr Nachev cautioned against the one-sided presentation and interpretation of history, and stressed that positive historical developments, such as the joint celebration of Bulgarian and Macedonian Academy of Sciences on May 11, should not be neglected. In terms of the European path of the region, Nachev stated that awareness and understanding of the EU and the prospects it offers to the region, are crucial and necessary for everyone in the region to make the correct and informed choice of steering the Western Balkans towards a brighter, European future, that leads away from its somber past.
MEP Andrey Kovachev complemented the historical perspective of the discussion by underlining that...
"The European integration process is the only way we can move forward, together. All other options have been tried out in the past - wars, ethnic cleansing ... Оur ancestors suffered greatly because of these actions.”
Kovatchev also noted that reconciliation through diplomatic means is not a process that can be achieved overnight, but one that must be completed through long-term, targeted efforts. Fortunately, we are already observing some actions that strive towards this goal. Kovachev reminded the audience of the importance of knowing and understanding the past, however dark it may be since this knowledge is the basis for the drafting of adequate and successful policies that can contribute to reconciliation and development in the region. Examples of such policies include European programs targeted at supporting young people in the region, such as those that facilitate student exchanges, education abroad and professionalization across all of Europe thanks to the Erasmus program. Kovatchev noted that the EU attached great importance to youth in the region: a priority which is reflected in the future financial planning of the EU, which will provide increased funding for programs that invest in the future young people from the region and Europe.
Ms Genka Georgieva showcased the crucial current and future role Bulgaria plays in the integration process of the Western Balkans and Bulgarian efforts to keep the Western Balkans at the top of the agenda of EU institutions.
She stressed that the process of integration of the region is a strategic choice for the whole of Europe, and that this decision reiterates the EU’s commitment to support reforms in the region, including through financial and diplomatic means. In relation to the Summit on 17 May, Ms Georgieva stated that special attention will be paid to the digital connectivity priority which EU and Western Balkan leaders will examine. Ms Georgieva also said that the Summit will include the launch of a new initiative, which will be directly linked to the digital connectivity between the region and Europe.
"The summit in Sofia represents only the beginning of the increased role Bulgaria will play in the process of integration of the region. I hope that the Summit conclusions will provide a roadmap for the upcoming years and that during the next scheduled Leaders Summit in Croatia in 2020, it will be Bulgaria that will report on the implementation of the objectives, we will set out on 17 May.”
On the topic of forthcoming presidencies of the Council of the EU, Ms Georgieva said that Bulgaria is working closely with the Austrian, Croatian, Finnish and even the British government to secure the continuation of the Western Balkan priority by the end of 2020, when negotiations on multiannual financial framework of the EU should be completed.
The development of the digital economy of the region offers enormous opportunities: this was the main argument put forward by Max Gurvits. He presented the reasons behind Bulgaria’s current leading part in the digital development in the region and the vital role Bulgaria can have as a centre of gravity for the development of these opportunities in the region:
"Sofia has become a hub for scalable entrepreneurship in the Balkan region. Southeast Europe is a very attractive market for digital entrepreneurship: we have an abundance of talent, opportunity and experts."
Mr Gurvits supported this claim by highlighting his personal involvement in the development of nearly 50 startup entrepreneurs from the Balkan region which realized their endeavours in Bulgaria.
He noted that the development of this potential in the region often overcomes national borders and historical obstacles. He gave a concrete example of this phenomenon through his recent interaction with startups from Kosovo which pitched their activities and sought investment in Serbia. Moreover, he noted that startup activities have a very positive effect not only on the economy but also on the whole society in a given country. He expressed his hope that this process continues and supports the European integration of the region.
"The most exciting part of being a part of the startup community is that entrepreneurship is, in effect, the big social lift of our generation. We can do a lot for the community through the digital economy. A good example of this is Estonia, which over the course of 20 years developed its economy greatly, precisely by developing a digital economy and society."
Live from Belgrade and Skopje, Milan Solaja and Ivan Nikolovski also joined the discussion via video call.
Mr Solaja presented the ICT sector in the Western Balkans as a flexible, horizontal, and one which provides solutions to both the private and public sector. He noted that European investments and programs have contributed to the development of the industry, and that it is essential to continue this process which should be a constant priority of the European integration process. Mr. Solaja highlighted two digital economy initiatives in the region - the Pan-Balkan Initiative for Digital Cooperation and the Balkan and Black Sea ICT Clusters Network, which build bridges between Europe and the region by bringing together regional companies, investors and experts from the digital sector with the goal of working together in the spirit of unity and cooperation.
Mr Nikolovski presented the youth perspective of the Western Balkans. He noted young people are the biggest EU supporters and that opinion polls show they see the EU as the biggest opportunity for socio-economic progress of their countries. When asked what he hopes to see as an outcome of the Summit, Nikolovski expressed his hope that more initiatives and funds are launched or continued that would contribute towards greater opportunities in terms of mobility, education and access to the European labour market. He expressed the hope of all young people in the Western Balkans that the process of European integration will lead to the consolidation of democratic values and rule of law in the region.
Thus, by presenting different perspectives of participants from the Western Balkans and Bulgaria, the public and private sector, representing the past, present and the future of the entire Balkan region, the discussion managed to connect the digital, historical, political and, of course, European element of the development of the region. Speakers agreed that each element of the process of European integration of the region is important, and that it is necessary for these factors to be examined and implemented in coordination with each other, in order to contribute to a long-term and coordinated process of cooperation in the region with Bulgaria. It remains to be seen how these elements will be included in the discussions of the summit on 17 May in Sofia and what the specific conclusions and initiatives will come out of the discussion during that day.