The time is right for the efforts by the EU, pursued under the Energy Community Treaty, which works to integrate the energy markets of the Union and its neighbours, and by the Western Balkan countries to pull together, not apart. The EU accession process with the Western Balkans requires more climate action now. Our shared resilience in the face of one of humanity’s most pressing crises depends on it,
writes Viktor Berishaj, Climate and Energy Policy Coordinator for Southeast Europe, Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe
CAN Europe wrote to the heads of states and governments of the EU Council, and the heads of the EU institutions In December 2019, warning that the inability of the EU to act swiftly and concretely towards the accession of the Western Balkans would lead to a stagnation of painstakingly slow progress of the region in fighting climate change. This is our collective struggle for our carbon-neutral continent, and we will not achieve this goal without one of its most polluting regions.
But precious time and political space continue to be taken for granted.
After a two-year delay, the accession talks have been officially opened with Albania and North Macedonia in March of this year. The delay had important political repercussions, however, as the prime minister of North Macedonia resigned due to the EU Council’s failure to reach a positive decision in 2019.
In the meantime, the US, Russia and China rarely miss an opportunity to skew the “region’s European perspective” with their own policies in the region, which often are uninformed by the EU’s quest for a climate-neutral continent. China, for example, is building a new fleet of coal power plants in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia which takes these countries in the opposite direction of just transition to climate neutrality.
More recently, the initial statement by the EU Commission in response to the COVID19 crisis that the EU must now focus on its own needs spurred some leaders from the Balkans to turn to China, Turkey, and Russia for help in dealing with the pandemic, and be very vocal about it. Hence the subsequent EUR 3.3 bn financial support package by the EU to the Western Balkans to fight the COVID19 pandemic, and post-pandemic recovery was the right initial response. But what’s needed is long-term consistency.
In time for the next summit
The EU – Western Balkans virtual summit was held yesterday during Croatia’s presidency, the region’s “cousin” already in the Union. It reaffirmed once again its “unequivocal support for the European perspective” of the region but failed to clarify any specific enlargement agenda. The Summit declaration is telling. Words like accession and enlargement are missing, leaving the center stage for words like regional cooperation, strengthening good neighborly relations, and partnership.
Overshadowed by the COVID19 pandemic, the Summit and the EU leadership, in particular, stressed again the importance of close cooperation, and of the special bond that the region and the EU have. The pandemic pushed at least one other crucial point from the agenda of the Summit - the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans.
Concerns for the climate?
Never before have the climate issues been so prominent in the EU, on all levels. The European Green Deal is the plan on which the EU will shape its future for at least the next thirty years, and tackle its most important challenges, becoming carbon-neutral by 2050, while providing sound socio-economic security for all through the just transition towards this change.
It is, therefore, strange to see this - one of the defining topics of the new Commission, absent from the political discussion with the Western Balkans partners. The Commission’s effort to deliver a Green Agenda for the Western Balkans has for now had to be put on hold, until a more convenient time later this year.
The work on this agenda was welcomed by CAN Europe, Europe's leading NGO coalition fighting dangerous climate change. Together with 16 other organisations we have put forth comments on the issues the Green Agenda must focus on, urging swift decarbonisation of the Western Balkan economies and the making of these and other climate-related efforts into legally binding processes. These actions will not only smooth-out the region’s integration into the EU, but also accelerate the already belated responses to climate emergency.
Reasons for optimism
The point 11 of the EU – Western Balkans summit declaration builds on the provided financial support to the Western Balkans, and underscores that the Commission is working on delivering a robust Economic and Investment Plan. It is stated that these endeavors should serve as approximation tools towards the EU’s climate-related ambitions, in line with the Paris Agreement and the promotion of the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans. This is not only welcomed, but this must be the norm of any future cooperation between the EU and the Western Balkans.
Very positive climate-related efforts have been witnessed in the region of the Western Balkans in the last months. Where in September of 2019 there were new coal projects planned in 5 out of 6 countries in the Western Balkans, there are now only Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina with new coal projects, where the lead financial backers are Chinese banks. North Macedonia is the first country in the region to have legally committed to a rapid coal phase out and Montenegro is introducing a carbon pricing mechanism.
The time is right for the efforts by the EU, pursued under the Energy Community Treaty, which works to integrate the energy markets of the Union and its neighbours, and by the Western Balkan countries to pull together, not apart. The EU accession process with the Western Balkans requires more climate action now. Our shared resilience in the face of one of humanity’s most pressing crises depends on it.