World leaders will shortly gather in Glasgow to address the climate crisis. Your organization has put an emphasis on sustainability. In many instances, the countries of the region are a full generation behind elsewhere in Europe in approaches to the environment, climate and broader sustainability. How is your organization attempting to bridge this large divide?

Yes, true. The divide is large. 16 coal power plants in the region are outdated and produce more hazardous emissions than the 260 power plants in Europe. Making coal history might be a nice tittle for an op-ed. But to do that and compensate or invest in renewable energy to undercut coal will not be easy.  But that is our reality. If it were not large, Western Balkans would be standing at different position towards the EU, right? Although, this is only one side of the coin.

Our region is characterized by moderate economic performance, high unemployment rates, low performance in social rights, so we are very realistic when it comes to the position of green agenda on the list of priorities in each of the Western Balkan economies. To start with credible targets: promotion of Green awareness benefits all societal groups, explaining to them that reusable energy, for example, is a way to go, it is a cheaper, cleaner, sustainable, and much better solution than what we have had so far. In a realm where words are cheap, there has been action too.

As people living here are not taking pride in being among the most polluted regions in Europe, and wider even, they see climate changes and effects they have on their lives. Through our Balkan Barometer we have a read out of citizens and business perceptions on green, air pollution, renewables. And I can tell you it is good to see that awareness on pollution has changed faster and deeper than we expected. 91% of WB citizens see climate change as a problem, and 93% say it too for pollution. As for businesses, 55% say pollution reduction should be a priority for our region’s Green Agenda, and 41% see reduction of energy consumption as a priority.

So, it is not a race after the high European standards, it is actually a race against devastating droughts, floods, premature deaths, and so on.

That said, the transition to green will be extremely challenging and costly – in terms of time, energy, efforts, financial resources, you name it. So the region counts on front-loading and expediting significant pre-accession funds dedicated to this agenda.

 

After a recent meeting with Prime Minister of Montenegro Zdravko Krivokapić, you used a unique term – “compromise with integrity”. Compromise is a bit of a rarity in the politics of any world capital. With an eye to your commitment to advancing the region, please elaborate on this term.

I was not preaching anything. I know that in politics one is tempted to agree with a lot of imperfect bargains. I can tell that by experience. For politicians compromising is the only way to do democratic politics. I know political polarisation makes compromise more difficult, and a person with political integrity commonly is portrayed as the one standing on principle and mistrusting opponents while I believe compromising with integrity should favour adapting one’s principles and respecting those of the opponents. As a politician committed to Europe and ultimately to the benefits of citizens, I would always go for compromise, for everything and everywhere. The region is not known for frequent compromise. Processes we have started with accession to the EU prove that – many difficult punches, drastic changes, and unpopular decisions are part of any transformation. And we do want to transform into better societies, there is no mystery to that. Numbers of people leaving the region, especially young speak for themselves. Waiting for too long for things to change is not an option.

Regional cooperation is all about that. EU as well is all about compromise, for that matter.  One of the shiniest examples of compromise-won success in our regional cooperation is the Green Lanes deal. Last year, when the pandemic started and the whole world closed, at one point the supply to the region, especially of food and medicine was endangered.  So we jumped in with the idea to open green lanes, thus ensuring free flow and uninterrupted supply of goods, which the entire region readily supported. In a month time we had a deal and Green Lanes up and running. And believe me, it was not easy. But everyone understood the vital importance for their citizens, and difficult but necessary compromises have been made, and the deal has been reached. With integrity, and a win-win outcome.

Now, we ‘just’ have to apply the same receipt for everything else.

 

Where did Balkathon originate and how has this initiative transformed thinking in the region? Could you speak to how your team has been able to most effectively engage the generation born after the dissolution of Yugoslavia?

Balkathon is RCC trademark, our Covid pandemic baby, born out of the necessity to overcome the sheer feeling of social isolation and helplessness. You surely remember how it was at the beginning of 2020. All of us, stuck at home, watching those numbers of infected and died growing, yet trying to invent the new normal, adjust, preserving our minds and businesses. Our game was not of the front-liners to help the sick so we focused on what we CAN do. The Green Lanes I mentioned earlier were our urgency intervention, followed by Balkathon, our second pandemic child so to speak. It was to lift the spirit and use the potential in the times when online and digital have proven to be indispensable modes of living.

Hence, Balkathon was envisaged as an online, regional competition for skilled young people, start-ups, entrepreneurs, students, digital innovation hubs, scientific parks, universities, SMEs, etc. from all Western Balkan economies with an idea to develop innovative digital solutions as a response to the challenges of our day-to-day life.

Last year we had 3 winners, resulting in 3 products, very useful digital applications. This year, we had 6. So now, one and a half year later we have 9 new, ‘made in Western Balkans’ digital products. New, inspiring, innovative products, made by young people of this region. I am extremely proud of them and my team who worked to make this possible. And we are not stopping. Earlier this year we launched Futurismo as well, another regional competition, but focused on tourism, which, as we know, took the biggest hit during the pandemic crisis. And tourism is very important for our region. Albania and Montenegro are primarily relying to tourism, but others as well. The income related to tourism is not insignificant. Approximately 11% of people in the WB are employed in tourism sector. That is huge.

My team working on this has had no difficulties in engaging people in the competition. Young people, as you said born after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, bear no nostalgia for ‘good old times’ but want to be a part of a global scene…they strive for better, bigger, different, new…

So this is our humble contribution to the recovery but also to an exercise that has shown how to mobilise region’s talent to serve the purpose and adjust the living to digital requirements. Next year we continue with both competitions and are already looking forward to new solutions and new amazing winners. We’ll keep evolving.

 

In Podgorica, you and your colleagues recently concluded the 4th Digital Summit of the Western Balkans. Montenegro (and most of the region) still lacks 5G and other digital advances those in Brussels, Berlin or Washington take for granted. Looking back to the 2018 summit in Skopje, what have the greatest advances been in this space and what work is still necessary?

Digital is not the future. It is the present. Therefore, digital transformation is at the core of regional cooperation.

It a bridge to connect us among ourselves and with the rest of Europe and the world; to fuel us up for faster and better change; to leverage technologies to create value and new services for various stakeholders; to innovate and acquire the capabilities to rapidly adapt to changing circumstances; to be the driving force of one single regional market and at later stage even EU single market; and to help us retain our youth in the region; to help us in the EU accession, but not one by one, through emigrations.

The Western Balkans Digital Summit in Skopje is where the story of digital connectivity of our region started unravelling. It was a pioneer and a brave step forward. Only a year later, at the 2nd Digital Summit with a robot-presenter, all WB6 signed the Regional Roaming Agreement, facilitated by the RCC and EU, which resulted in roaming free Western Balkans as of 1 July this year. It is a major success story for the region, and it is much more than saving money on phone bills. It is about connecting the region and its people more closely.  The next step is connecting us tightly to the EU through lowering roaming prices between the WB and EU.

There is no justification or market logic why a citizen from this region, not the richest one, should pay on average 103 euro per 1GB when roaming in the EU while the cost of the telecom operator is only 8 euro. A telecom operator’s retail margin or simply said profit for all services, data, and sms of above 700% again reflects no market logic.

We designed a Roadmap for this and region’s leaders endorsed it earlier this month. It is made to protect WB consumers from excessive prices, while allowing competition in the provision of roaming services to develop. This will require an open, transparent and inclusive process of consultation with mobile operators in the WB and EU. And we will do this through a structured Regulatory Dialogue.

But roaming is not all of the Digital Agenda set under the Common Regional Market.

We need to improve our digital infrastructure. The most important goal is to provide broadband internet connections to 95% of households until 2024. Then there are e-services. The pandemic showed us the importance of being prepared to go digital. WB ranges up to 47% regarding e-shopping, while EU’s average is 69%. Recognition of trust services we are currently working on with WB6 will further boost the free movement of services, facilitate e-commerce and bring direct benefits to the citizens. We should also not forget the free flow of data which is considered the fifth freedom of a common market. Therefore, we have embarked on a new initiative to ensure free flow of personal and non-personal data in our region in order to unleash the untapped potentials of data economy.

In 2020, Tirana hosted the 3rd Digital Summit – all online, as the pandemic was dictating and it worked very well – full digital edition, where the WB6 ministers signed two memorandums of understanding on 5G roadmap for digital transformation and on regional interoperability and trust services in the region. And finally, the 4th edition of the WB Digital Summit was held in Podgorica where I proposed region’s ministers to start a very demanding but beneficial process of creating Digital Identity with the objective to offer Western Balkan citizens and businesses digital wallets that will be able to link their national digital identities with proof of other personal attributes such as driving license, diplomas, bank account, etc. The EU launched this process months ago.

Data is power and some countries are using digital infrastructure to empower people by data. Enabling citizens to have a trustworthy digital identity is one way to bring them to the formal economy. I believe WB economies may seek opportunities to replicate this and we at the RCC are ready to support with any regional action needed.

Final point for the end, all of this is part of the Common Regional Market Action Plan WB6 leaders adopted last year is Sofia. And it does not include digital agenda only, but also, among other things, recognition of diplomas and professional qualifications, free movement of goods and services and of people with of ID cards, and many more and I hope the region will move stronger and faster in the direction of its implementation.

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