Newsletter 30/2013 - From Brussels angle

INTERVEW with Kjartan Björnsson, Deputy Head, Regional Cooperation and Programmes, Directorate General for Enlargement, European Commission

SEE 2020 demonstrates new vision of inclusive regional cooperation addressing concrete problems at national level

What is the significance of the South East Europe 2020 (SEE 2020) strategy for the region?

The countries in the Western Balkans are facing serious economic problems. In particular, the countries need to improve their infrastructure networks to allow for better intra-regional linkages and linkages with the European Union (EU). Given their current fiscal situation they cannot finance major new investments without innovative financial solutions as well as significant improvements in their economic governance. They also need to engage in structural reforms to improve the competitiveness of their businesses, both locally and abroad. If companies cannot offer good quality products at a competitive price, they will not be able to win market shares and then they cannot offer sustainable job opportunities for the workforce. This is not only a major problem for those who cannot find a job but also a challenge for the accession process, as the Copenhagen criteria stipulate that the accession countries demonstrate that they are functioning market economies which are able to withstand the competitive pressures in the internal market of the EU.

The implementation of the SEE 2020 strategy will address several of these weaknesses and if fully implemented it could help create as much as 1 million new jobs by 2020. This sounds very ambitious but it is in fact only a little bit more than the 800,000 jobs lost during the recent crisis. By focusing on competitiveness, the SEE 2020 is directly relevant for the accession process, and it could also help improve the image of the region: The countries which joined the EU in 2004 attracted considerable foreign direct investment while still preparing for membership, and it could be hoped that theSEE 2020 could help make that happen also for the Western Balkans.

How do you see advanced regional cooperation efforts aimed towards successful implementation of SEE 2020?

SEE 2020 covers very real and important problems for the region. It also demonstrates a new vision that regional cooperation must be inclusive and help addressing concrete problems at national level. This is obviously only relevant if the strategy gets implemented by the countries. The countries now need to ensure that they take the necessary steps to implement the reforms required to meet the SEE 2020 targets signed up to on 21 November 2013 in Sarajevo.

How important are all-inclusiveness and comprehensive public outreach for SEE 2020 implementation?

The SEE 2020 strategy has the potential to bring about real changes for the people of the region. It is therefore important to ensure that the general public is kept fully informed about the process and the efforts by and in the countries making this strategy a reality.

Each country will be required to develop national SEE 2020 action plans outlining the specific policy measures envisaged to implement to meet the SEE 2020 targets. The public outreach should be based on these national action plans so that the general public including civil society organisations would be able to participate in the process and hold their governments accountable for the implementation of SEE 2020 in their country.

How do you view the role of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) in the SEE 2020 strategy implementation and monitoring? 

The RCC is establishing a monitoring system to allow tracking of the targets as well as the agreed reform measures. They will be supported by an EU funded project implemented by the OECD.

SEE 2020 foresees a broad governance structure which involves 4 levels: (i) the national administrations, represented by the SEE 2020 coordinators and the respective ministries and agencies; (ii) regional structures serving as coordinators of respective policy dimensions (dimension coordinators); (iii) the Regional Cooperation Council; and (iv) the Governing Board of SEE 2020, which brings together the highest political representatives in the region.

The regional dimension coordinators include Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), Energy Community Secretariat, South-east Europe Transport Observatory (SEETO) and Regional School of Public Administration (ReSPA), and the national SEE 2020 coordinators will ensure that all relevant ministries are fully engaged in the process and move ahead with the required reform measures.

Kjartan Björnsson is Deputy Head of Unit for Regional Cooperation and Programmes. He has worked in the European Commission’s Directorate General for Enlargement since September 2011. Prior to that, he was Head of Operations at the EU Office in Pristina (October 2007-August 2011) and Head of Operations Section II in the EU Delegation in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina (May 2004-October 2007). He was Team Leader for Statistical Co-operation with the Western Balkans in Eurostat (November 2001-May 2004). He holds an M.Sc. degree in Economics from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.


Kjartan Björnsson, Deputy Head, Regional Cooperation and Programmes, Directorate General for Enlargement, European Commission (Photo: courtesy of Mr Björnsson)

Kjartan Björnsson, Deputy Head, Regional Cooperation and Programmes, Directorate General for Enlargement, European Commission (Photo: courtesy of Mr Björnsson)