Johannes Hahn, European Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, about the Western Balkans Strategy, the Western Balkans as a business location and what it is that makes the region attractive.
What is the objective of the Western Balkans Strategy, which was recently adopted by the EU Commission?
The strategy is an honest offer to our Western Balkan friends that our door remains open if they seriously do their homework. It reconfirms that the enlargement process is a strict, firm and merit based process with no shortcuts. The 2025 perspective should, on the one hand, motivate our Western Balkan friends to take forward necessary reforms and to make this perspective concrete. On the other hand, this date is a purely indicative date and does not allow room for complacency. The strategy should give new impetus for the necessary transformation in the Western Balkan countries.
Why is it so important for the Western Balkans to be part of the EU?
For the Western Balkan countries, the European perspective is as attractive as ever: European citizens enjoy peace, freedom and prosperous economic development. The European perspective we offer to the Western Balkans creates a significant impetus for reform in the region. All Western Balkan countries will be able to become more democratic, constitutional and competitive.
Therefore, the integration of the Western Balkans will also be beneficial for the rest of the Union. The prospect of EU membership for the Western Balkans is in the Union’s own political, security and economic interest.
What makes the Western Balkans special as a business location?
There are a number of factors that make the region attractive from a business perspective. Steady growth, ongoing creation of employment opportunities and relatively low inflation help reduce poverty, meaning that the 18 mn inhabitants of the region are becoming increasingly important as potential customers. The location of the region itself is a decisive advantage. It is not just at the crossroads of Asia, Africa and Europe but also a transit corridor from the western and central member states to Greece, Bulgaria and Romania. Finally, the mountainous topology of the Western Balkans provides the ideal setting for renewable energy generation through hydropower, creating the opportunity for the region to become a front-runner in sustainability.
You called the West Balkans Strategy an „honest offer“. Besides honesty, what is the key to success regarding cross-national business relationships in your opinion?
Cross-national business relationships between the EU and the Western Balkans are already successful, as can be seen from growing trade volumes and investments. Nevertheless, in order to foster stronger cooperation, the economic development of the region has to steadily progress. This means boosting private investment, supporting private sector development, making finance to SMEs more accessible, enhancing R&D capacities and stopping the brain-drain. Furthermore, foreign investors need to be assured that their investments are protected. Therefore, the Western Balkans need to strengthen the rule of law both on paper and in execution to ensure the protection of property rights.
Do you have an advice for entrepreneurs or companies that want to make business in the Western Balkans?
The Western Balkans represent enormous economic opportunities for entrepreneurs and companies. The EU is already the countries’ most important trading partner; EU companies have invested EUR 10 bn over the last ten years. Its strategic location for infrastructure investments creates unique opportunities for connectivity in the energy and transport sectors. However, entrepreneurs should be aware that these are emerging markets, where the political, economic and legal institutions function differently than in industrialized countries. Investors should seek advice both from experts at home and from local partners on how to navigate through the dynamic business environment of the Western Balkans.
And one last, more personal, question: do you enjoy one region in the Western Balkans in particular – any special place one should definitely travel to?
The Western Balkans region as a whole is a fascinating travel destination! It is a place where one can enjoy all aspects of leisure, from beautiful mountains to the picturesque Mediterranean coast to the sights of historic old towns. One should travel to all countries of the region in order to get an overall understanding of the rich cultural heritage of the Balkans.