The European Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations joined Western Balkan prime ministers for an informal meeting in Durres, Albania, on August 27.

Commissioner Johannes Hahn discussed regional economic integration, including the Regional Economic Area (REA).

“The Regional Economic Area is the key to the goal of regional economic integration,” he said. “Intra-regional trade is up for the first time in years: an increase of more than 13% in intra-CEFTA trade in 2017 compared to 2016. Given this backdrop, our own prediction of REA potentially creating around 80,000 new jobs by 2025 seems almost too cautious.”

According to the Commissioner, “putting the work on rule of law as well as growth and jobs at the heart of Commission’s engagement with the region on its European path”.

He also stressed the “important decisions” taken by Brussels for the future of the region in the past few months. These include the February Western Balkans Strategy and the first EU-Western Balkans summit in 15 years, in Sofia.

In June, Hahn was in Prespa when Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) signed the historic agreement on the name issue. And two weeks later, the EU Council set out the path to open accession negotiations with Skopje and Tirana.

“The speed of positive developments even surprised some and, as a result, everybody is now watching closely,” he said. “If anything, the pressure to continue delivering has increased. On the EU side, you are facing a window of opportunity: a whole series of very proactive Council presidencies, as well as a fully engaged Brussels. This is not guaranteed eternally: European elections are upcoming and a new Commission beckons at the end of 2019.”

About EU membership, the Commissioner said this requires more than the (very important) rule of law reforms. “We need a boost for growth, jobs and prosperity for the region along the path to membership: this will the decisive factor to convince both your own citizens, as well as those of today’s EU, that our joint ambition of EU membership is win-win.”

He also noted that intra-regional trade is up for the first time in years: an increase of more than 13% in intra-CEFTA trade in 2017 compared to 2016.

“Establishing a ‘single’ market of 18 million people is a game changer for untapped private investors looking for market opportunities and attracting the investment you need to become prosperous EU member states.”

However, he remains concerned. “We are completely stuck on trade in services (additional protocol 6) for the whole region because – pardon my bluntness – we can’t agree how some technical documents are labelled. I have all the understanding for the complications of the Dialogue, but this can’t be holding hostage the economic development of the region.”

On investment, Hahn noted that the Regional Investment Reform Agenda is in place. “In line with your commitments, you now need to develop the specific investment action plans and increase transparency (procurement/China!). Easier said than done – but – you must consider your neighbours more as partners than as competitors!”