Europe is focused and dedicated to the Western Balkan countries like never before. In a relatively short time, the countries of the region have an opportunity to intensify their institutional and structural reforms, and boost their competitiveness on the global market, to make use of the benefits of digitization, technological and green development, as future members of the European Union. EU membership also depends on the Union’s enthusiasm for enlargement, as well as the efforts of the candidate states to fulfill the necessary, high criteria and standards, by respecting the fundamental European values. This process is mutually beneficial for both sides, said Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski in his introductory address Friday at the Skopje Economic Finance Forum (SEFF).

According to Kovachevski, the announced plan for the Western Balkans by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who at a forum in Bratislava in May 2023, promoted the joint goal of accelerating the Euro-integration process, creating opportunities for a much faster integration within the Union.

The PM said the Western Balkan countries should focus on tackling the challenges on their path to prosperity together.

“We should all boost our efforts and fulfill the expectations of our citizens. It depends on us how soon we will implement reform on the path to the EU, and how soon we will fulfill the conditions, while the dynamic we follow depends on the internal political dialogue. However, one thing is certain – the EU must remain our focus and goal. We need to commit ourselves to boosting the capacities of the institutions that are working on the prevention and early detection of corruption, so they can carry out successful investigations and prosecute the culprits. This is a high priority on the agenda in the EU accession process. We belong to the democratic and free part of Europe. Just as we, the Western Balkan countries, have an interest in being EU members, so the EU too has a great interest in a conflict-free Balkans with political stability, with economically stable countries that will develop and perfect themselves, on a democratic, administrative, political and security level. The multi-generational struggle for a united Europe will continue with the Western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership, and this provides us with a strong reform incentive,” said Kovachevski.

According to Kovachevski, the transformation and progress of the economies of the Western Balkan countries is of great importance for a better living standard for the citizens.

“But the systemic reform processes which we can only achieve as members of the European Union are equally important. This would mean essential reforms for the establishment of fundamental European values such as the rule of law, and respect for human rights because this is the only way the public’s trust in the state institutions, judiciary, prosecution, and politicians, can be higher. Macedonia has demonstrated that it does not deviate from its commitment to the fulfillment of its strategic goals, both in maintaining good-neighborly relations and in the commitment to the country’s EU membership. Not only does our country share the principles of the EU’s foreign policy, but it has also reached a high level of harmonization with the Union’s positions, which is a confirmation that we share the European Union’s values,” underlined the Prime Minister.

The PM touched upon the economic benefits of being an EU member.

“The four pillars foreseen for the Western Balkan countries will allow us to feel the benefits of the main driver of economic success – the transformational power of the European integrations. Here, I am referring to the economic power of the EU’s participation in the global economy and trade with around 16 percent. Just in 2021, the EU had exports of EUR 2.18 trillion. The European Union has a single market of 500 million people, which enables greater absorption power and opportunities for the economy. It is assessed that the EU’s GDP is higher by 9 percent overall, precisely as a result of the trade and financial integration. In our country, a high level of public support for the necessary EU membership has persisted since our independence, for 30 years. Throughout all these years, the EU’s financial assistance is estimated to be over EUR 3.3 billion, funds which our country has received through grants and macro-financial assistance, which have enabled liquidity support, accelerating business activity, and have also indirectly contributed to higher wages and pensions, reduction in unemployment, increased foreign investments,” stressed the Prime Minister.

Kovachevski said that as a result of the open European policy of the Government, Macedonia in the past few years has maintained its economic stability amidst several simultaneous crises.

“In the past 5 years, Macedonia has been the driver of positive political and economic flows, we are providing opportunities for the business community, and we are investing in a functional, modern, connection of our country with the entire region. New European routes are being opened through capital investments in road infrastructure. The Government’s European orientation is showing results. I will draw several comparisons, with Macedonia’s NATO membership we have enabled a stable, security environment in our country which created an opportunity for investors to recognize our country, as a significant gateway to the European market. The unemployment rate dropped from 24 percent in 2016 to 14.4 percent today. In a single year, we have recorded an increase in employment of 9.5 percent. The difference is also immense in terms of direct foreign investments, in 2016 they stood at EUR 338 million, in 2022, a year after the Covid-19 pandemic and amidst a global economic and energy crisis, they stood at almost EUR 754 million. Double of what they were in 2016,” said Kovachevski.

In terms of EU membership, the PM noted that the economic benefits will be enormous.

“Numerous studies carried out years ago show that the greatest dissatisfaction of the citizens of the Western Balkans is due to the economic situation, the double-digit unemployment rates, and the drain of high-skilled and low-skilled labor. We must bring Europe here and be recognized as a new dignified and respected member. And now the question arises – what would the economic effects of EU membership be? In the first 5 years, it would mean wages higher by 70 to 100 percent. A growth of GDP of 80 to 90 percent, more jobs. A 30-40 percent increase in small and medium-sized enterprises. In 2008, Macedonia and Croatia were in the same position in terms of becoming members of the Union. Two days ago, my Croatian colleague, Andrej Plenković said that after 10 years of membership, Croatia has gained EUR 12 billion. Croatia joined the EU in 2013 with an unemployment rate of 17.3 percent, in 2022 the unemployment rate has dropped to 6.7 percent,” said Kovachevski.

The Prime Minister concluded that EU membership has a significant impact on economic growth and trade, reducing trade barriers and increasing competitiveness.

“EU membership also means financial assistance aimed at reducing economic differences between the member states. These funds are used to finance infrastructure projects, regional development, and various initiatives for stimulating economic growth,” underlined Kovachevski.