In Focus: Sustaining a credible enlargement perspectives for the WBCs in 2019 !

The integration of the Western Balkan Countries (WBCs) into the European Union (EU) is a major political and economic project designed to assure stability and development in the region. From the very beginning, cooperation on research and innovation has been stimulated as a tool to facilitate integration into the European Union

As of 1 January 2019, Romania will take over the presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU) from Austria. After a period of increased attention on the enlargement to the Western Balkans the EU’s next semester will be marked by numerous internal priorities (European Parliament elections, Brexit, the Multiannual Financial Framework negotiations, etc.).

The key issue for discussion on the Western Balkans is  therefore whether the enlargement momentum can be sustained also in 2019.  A conference  organized by the European Policy Centre (CEP, Belgrade) has recently discussed the best ways to keep the enlargement policy on the agenda of the European Union. The participants debated the current contribution of the Berlin Process, as well as their prognosis and expectations for the enlargement process in the future. On this regard, as underlined in  the policy paper “2018 Western Balkans Summit: 3 key takeaways from London”, the Berlin Process has succeeded in getting Western Balkans leaders and ministers around the table and make them talk about and try to solve open issues in the region. The second important outcome of the London Summit has been the fact that, for the first time, civil society organisations have sat around the same table with leaders and ministers of the Western Balkan countries.  Achievements in the areas for instance of youth and civil society cooperation  can be checked thanks to this infographic by SEE Think NET.

Challenges and reforms necessary to sustain the “credible enlargement perspective’ were also discussed at two-day annual  economic conference entitled “Balkan and European union — a five-year cycle of the Berlin Process” (Budva, on 25 and 26 October 2018). In such an occasion the President of Montenegro Djukanovic said that the “vision of united Europe appears blurred, while the perspective for EU accession for candidate countries seems uncertain”. According to him, moreover regional relations are still burdened by sensitive bilateral issues from the nineties. He urged the EU to help the infrastructural development of the Western Balkans, explaining that this would be the biggest contribution to regional countries to overcome their underdevelopment.  Austrian Chancellor assured that the EU cannot be complete without the Western Balkans and said that the integration can become functional only through cooperation in politics and economy.   Beginning of December moreover,  at the 19th edition of EU-Western Balkans Summit it was stressed how the „Transformation of Western Balkans is about connectivity: about integrating economies into a single market, about connecting people and sharing values, about our common political, security and economic interests…” Discussions also tackled major opportunities linked to key connectivity projects in the Western Balkans; identification of priority economic reforms that are still needed in the Western Balkans in order to sustain the “credible enlargement perspective”; and a question if the Western Balkans leaders paid enough attention to the concerns of their young people as regards to education and entrepreneurship.

Good chances on this regard come from the Chair’s Conclusions of the Heads’ meeting of the London Western Balkans Summit where commitment to work together through the Berlin Process was expressed to implement the outcomes from the London Summit, while looking forward to the next Summit in Poland in 2019.  Heads reaffirmed own commitment to achieving a stable, secure and prosperous Western Balkans region, anchored to European values and systems.  On the other hand, Poland, as the next country holding the EU Presidency, will focus itself on conflict resolution and connectivity boosting. economic cooperation, security and youth cooperation among FYR of Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo*, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Roadmap for EU – WB Countries S&T cooperation

The updated versions of the multi-annual roadmaps for cooperation in research and innovation with key partner countries and regions such as the WB region were updated in October 2018.

The roadmap stresses again how cooperation on research and innovation has been stimulated as a tool to facilitate integration into the European Union. In such a framework the Steering Platform on Research for the WBCs plays a vital role in gathering stakeholders from the Balkan Region and international donors aiming at creating more synergy between the many actions and instruments in support of re-building the research and innovation capacity in the region. The third Western Balkan Research and Innovation meeting will be held in Spring 2019 in Sarajevo and participants  will be able to debate the state of research and innovation policy in Western Balkan countries as well as on other themes such as smart specialisation strategies in the Western Balkans and their alignment with countries' research priorities and economic policies.

In 2018 the European Commission presented a strategy for 'A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans'. Six flagship initiatives will support the transformation efforts of the Western Balkans in areas of mutual interest.

The R&I landscape in the region is still very heterogeneous. In all these countries, the level of public and private sector investment in research, development and innovation (RDI) is low, below the level needed to enable the economies to move up the ladder of the value chains.  Serbia is the most advanced in the region with Albania on the other end of the scale. Spending on research and development has been increasing but is still rather low and the cooperation between research institutions and economic operators is often weak, hampering innovation and productivity. All countries are far behind the EU objective to devote 3% of its GDP to R&D activities and they have also not yet reached their national objectives. In the future, higher investments in R&D activities – in the case of the WBC especially from private entities – in alignment with reforms towards more open and competitive research systems - will be necessary.

Assessing the region is often challenging due to the lack of up-to-date or accurate data. In addition to the very low national research budgets, the allocation of funding lacks also competitiveness (ERA priority 1) and strategies setting clear sectoral priorities in which to concentrate efforts on research and contribute to Europe's scientific excellence and critical mass to address the societal challenges (ERA priority 2). Montenegro and the former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia are doing quite well in terms of citation impact and international collaboration. However, this data is not weighted by the size of the countries – there appears to be skewedness towards smaller countries concerning impact and international collaboration. Access to national and international research infrastructures in line with the ESFRI Roadmap is gaining importance. The human capital building is also weak and effective compliance with the Charter and Code of Conduct for recruitment principles is very low. On gender equality all countries are close to gender parity but lack gender equality plans. Women are still underrepresented in the management functions.

On the principles of open science and access to data, the WBCs just started embracing the principles.Further efforts are necessary for the Western Balkan countries on Open Science skills such as data management and re-use and open collaboration on PhD training.

In terms of innovation and industry academia cooperation, the West Balkan region does not appear to have developed a lot over the last couple of years.

All 'Enlargement countries' except Kosovo*1 were associated to FP7 and renewed association to Horizon 2020. Still there remains a big need to enhance the R&I capacity at national level. The Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA) is the means by which the EU supports reforms in the 'enlargement countries' with financial and technical help. Research and Innovation capacity building is one of the measures carried out under IPA.

Research and Innovation capacity building has been identified across the region as one of the key elements that need to be urgently addressed. Efforts like establishing a catalogue of research capacities and expertise available will help towards an increased R&I efficiency. The ongoing development of smart specialisation strategies (S3s) underpins national research and innovation strategies and policies. These S3s will help to prioritise national research efforts and to allocate the resources needed. They will also help to identify regional centres of excellence as cross-regional initiatives promoting science and innovation.

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