Surrounded as it is on all sides by the European Union and preparing itself for EU membership, the Western Balkans must be better integrated in the European Green Deal, writes Fintan McKenna.

As we mark the first anniversary of the launch of Ursula Von der Leyen’s European Green Deal, environmental negotiations and progress are not limited within the boundaries of the 27 member states of the European Union. Surrounded and enveloped by the EU like a kind of enclave is the Western Balkans, which is made up of six countries at different stages of their accession process.

Von der Leyen highlighted the region during her State of the Union speech as a target for building stronger partnerships. “Trust is the foundation of any strong partnership and Europe will always be ready to build strong partnerships with our closest neighbours. That starts with the Western Balkans,” the Commission president told MEPs.

The Green Agenda is an adapted approach of the EU Green Deal for the Western Balkans. The €9-billion Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkan seeks to stimulate the economies in the Western Balkan states, while bringing the region up to the levels of the EU’s environmental standards and climate objectives. It also aims to reduce corruption and strengthen democracy.

However, already at the early stages, there have been problems with the formulation and implementation of the Green Agenda. Although many of the investments facilitate environmentally positive transitions in the region, some of the short-term initiatives are likely to harm long-term sustainability.

Watering down ambitions

An example of this is the heavy investment in hydropower which has been proposed for the region. Hydropower may be “cleaner” in terms of emissions compared to coal, but this overlooks the devastating effects of hydropower on biodiversity and native aquatic migration patterns.

Despite these effects being long established, the European Commission still seems more focused on so-called ‘green energy’ than truly sustainable energy. “With climate change at our doorstep, counting on small hydropower projects for energy production is not responsible towards the environment and the economy,” says Ana Colovic Lesoska of Eko-svest, an EEB member organisation. “Therefore, these countries need to end the harmful subsidies for hydropower and, instead, support new sustainable technologies that would benefit the economy and its recovery [and] create green jobs.”

The Western Balkan region has been synonymous with coal energy for some time now, especially with heavy Chinese investment in this sector in countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina. As the individual states of the region cooperate to adapt EU environmental standards, it is important that investments are allocated correctly and ensure as much long-term sustainability as possible.

Fossilised solutions

A particular issue with the Green Agenda is the proposed transition from coal to gas energy in a region which has no history of gas energy reliance, in particular fossil gas. Heavy investment in new gas infrastructure in a region which has not historically relied on gas energy is investing in the use of fossil fuels and locking in pollution.

The Commission needs to look for more durable and sustainable solutions to the coal phase-out in the region that do not perpetuate the use of fossil fuels. “We are concerned about the short-termism of the EU’s plans to invest in natural gas in the region as a stepping stone to gradual decarbonisation’,” maintains Aleksandra Mladenovic, president of Environmental Ambassadors for Sustainable Development, an EEB member organisation. “Rather than investing in fossil fuels and setting up a gas supply system in the region, the EU should put its money into 100% renewables for the region. We cannot afford any stranded assets.”

On 11 November 2020, leaders of the six Western Balkan states attended an online summit hosted by Bulgaria and co-hosted by North Macedonia. The assembled leaders and ministers discussed many of the proposed projects for the €9-billion investment plan.

Public accountability

However, in a region where bureaucratic transparency is low, there has been little to no public and civil society participation in the design and the implementation of Green Agenda.

“The EU has a strong commitment to participatory and deliberative democracy,” emphasised the EEB’s Director of Global Policies and Sustainability Patrizia Heidegger. “The Green Agenda is a unique opportunity for the EU to walk the talk and ensure strong engagement of civil society organisations and people in the candidate countries in the making of new policies and the investments in the ecological transition.” 

Given the region’s weak record in applying EU environmental law and state aid legislation in recent years, even under binding instruments such as the Energy Community Treaty, the Green Agenda in its current form lacks sufficient emphasis on legal enforcement that could ensure its integrity.

We, therefore, call for greater consideration of how existing instruments, such as the Energy Community Treaty and Transport Community Treaty, can be used to ensure the effective implementation of the Green Agenda.

In addition, 18 NGOs in the Western Balkans have called for a just implementation of the Green Agenda that is based on clearly defined and measurable goals; the participation of all relevant stakeholders; channelling funding to local and participatory plans which exclude fossil fuels; and promoting the adoption of local just transition plans.

If the green transition in the Western Balkans is to be a success, every resource at our disposal, including public engagement and involvement, must be channelled towards this end.

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Read a civil society statement on the Green Agenda to Western Balkan leaders and the European Commission

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