‘The Future Is on Tracks’: European Commission Pledges €3.2 Billion To Improve Railways and Sustainable Transport in The Western Balkans.

In late February, the European Commission announced a substantial €3.2 billion investment package to support 21 connectivity projects across the Western Balkans, providing financial backing for improvements in transport, climate, and energy.

The package is the first project for the European Union’s ambitious economic and investment strategy in the Western Balkans, targeting the nations of Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, and Kosovo. Implementation will begin in 2023.

Under the plan, €30 billion worth of investments will be mobilised via grants and guarantees to close the development gap between the EU and the Western Balkans. At first, the measures will prioritise improvements to sustainable transport and will oversee projects such as the construction of major road and railway connections, including a Rhine-Danube corridor, and a rail corridor between Skopje, in North Macedonia, and Bulgaria.

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Olivér Várhelyi, the European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement explained the reason for the focus on sustainable transport. Várhelyi claims that ‘better and more sustainable transport connections will boost the economy and drive the green transition of the region’. Certainly, the Commission believes the project will increase trade by reducing travel time and spurring economic growth for the local population on top of improving the region’s green credentials [1].

To bring forth transport reforms, the EU and national governments will work together to increase rail capacity and develop new environmentally friendly transport modes. For example, smart mobility projects will combine different transport modes such as public transport and public bike-sharing schemes to the benefit of urban and semi-urban populations in the region. Moreover, additional projects will target consensus building to facilitate the transition towards low carbon transportation and a less carbon-intensive economy.

Numerous factors are driving the planned investments. For one, climate change, as originally laid out in the Commission’s Green Agenda Plan for the Western Balkans, is a major consideration. Indeed, provided that the region’s average temperature has risen by 1.2 degrees since 1970 and that it has one of the highest air pollution rates in Europe [2], transport decarbonisation has been identified as a strategic priority. Moreover, in a bid to mitigate further catastrophic climate disasters, such as the 2014 floods [3], many governments in the Western Balkans have aligned domestic policies with the EU’s net zero by 2050 goals.

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In addition to climate related concerns, there has long been a need to improve transport infrastructure in the Western Balkans. Rail, for instance, has been singled out for investment because the railways remain heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Indeed, only approximately 50% of the tracks are electrified compared to EU members such as Belgium, for example, where 86.4% of the railways are electrified [4].

Furthermore, the region’s transport infrastructure, having been built in the 1960s, is outdated.  Therefore standards remain significantly lower than those elsewhere [5]. Further decline was hastened by the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s which saw the number of services significantly reduced especially cross border. For example, in the 1980s there were 28 passenger trains connecting Ljubljana, Slovenia and Belgrade, Serbia; by 2015 only 5 were left on the same route.

The decline in infrastructure has continued to the point where a 2019 World Economics Forum report on the efficiency of countries’ train services was especially critical of the Western Balkans. With a rating scale from 7 (the best) to 1 (the worst) the Western Balkans were ranked amongst the lowest in Europe with scores between 1 and 2; the highest score was 2.61 for Serbia and the lowest was a measly 1.20 for Albania. Western Balkan infrastructure consequently needs unprecedented investment and technical expertise to develop rail to an acceptable standard; an outcome only possible with EU investment [6].

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Finally, the adoption of more sustainable transport is crucial for the Western Balkans’ prospects of EU membership. This is the priority for national governments and citizens alike. Hence, emphasis has been placed on following the proposals of the Green Deal as to demonstrate that the region is on a positive trajectory towards EU accession.

The Western Balkans nations face some hurdles on the road to membership. There have been signs that the Bloc is suffering from enlargement fatigue following the rapid enlargement of the 2000s. Indeed, enlargement fatigue is said to have been the reason why France blocked the formal opening of EU negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia in October 2019 [7].

Attitudes are, however, shifting. The EU looks set to turn over a new leaf with the appointment of the Czech Republic to the Presidency of the Council of the European Union in July this year, where the Czechs plan to place the Western Balkans accession as a top policy priority. The Czech presidency may also want to set a formal date for Serbian and Montenegrin accession within their mandate and unblock accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia [8].

Certainly, many Western Balkan countries may utilise transport and economic reforms to bolster their respective EU candidacies. However, regardless of the outcome of their applications, the package of investments and targeted reforms will aid national governments in overcoming an array of strategic and economic challenges such as climate change mitigation and transport decarbonisation. In doing so, the region’s businesses and citizens will also likely benefit from improvements to rail and public transportation services, cleaner air, and living standards which are closer to those in the EU.

[1] European Commission. 25th February 2022. European Commission launches €3.2 billion investment package to advance sustainable connectivity in the Western Balkans. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/news/european-commission-launches-eu32-billion-investment-package-advance-sustainable-connectivity-2022-02-25_en [Accessed: 11th March 2022]

[2] European Commission. 6th October 2020. Guidelines for the Implementation of the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans. Pp. 2-18.

[3] A. Taylor. 20th May 2014. Balkans Struck by Worst Flooding in 120 Years. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2014/05/balkans-struck-by-worst-flooding-in-120-years/100739/ [Accessed: 11th March 2022]

[4] Statista. September 2019. Percentage of the railway lines in use in Europe in 2019 which were electrified, by country. Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/451522/share-of-the-rail-network-which-is-electrified-in-europe/ [Accessed: 11th March 2022]

[5] S. Knez, S. Štrbac & I. Podbregar. 3rd January 2022. Climate change in the Western Balkans and EU Green Deal: status, mitigation and challenges. Pp. 1-9

[6] S. Trimi. 30th November 2021. Getting trains in the Western Balkans back on track. Available at: https://emerging-europe.com/news/getting-trains-in-the-western-balkans-back-on-track/ [Accessed: 12th March 2022]

[7] V. Mladineo, D. Čepo & V. Petrović. 28th November 2019. Enlargement fatigue is a symptom of weakening European values. Available at: https://www.friendsofeurope.org/insights/enlargement-fatigue-is-a-symptom-of-weakening-european-values/ [Accessed: 13th March 2022]

[8] A. Zachová. 28th June 2021. Western Balkans to be top priority of Czech 2022 presidency. Available at: https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/western-balkans-to-be-a-priority-of-czech-2022-council-presidency/ [Accessed: 13th March 2022]

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