[Focus Article]: Interview with Ms Signe Ratso, Deputy Director-General: Open Innovation & Chief Negotiator for HE Association DG Research and Innovation, European Commission

The Western Balkans Agenda is expected to set out a new narrative for the region and to provide a forward-looking vision for all citizens, particularly for the youth. Can you tell us more about this?

The Commission moved one step closer to a formal innovation agenda with the region on 06/10/2020, as it launched an Economic and Investment Plan. The Plan aims to support sustained economic growth and reforms by Western Balkans countries to move forward on their path towards the EU. A specific reference in this Plan was made to the Western Balkans Agenda on Research, Innovation, Education, Culture, Youth and Sports, thus highlighting the importance and need for a future innovation agenda for the region that will boost research cooperation, and facilitate access to world-class research tools and infrastructure.

The future Western Balkans Agenda on Innovation, Research, Education, Culture, Youth and Sport aims to:

  • boost gender equality, human capital development and inclusiveness;
  • nurture knowledge-based society;
  • reform national education, research and innovation eco-systems;
  • support the green transition and digital transformation in the region.

COVID-19 triggered a momentum for change. We are all facing important challenges requiring decisive and forward looking action. This makes strengthened regional and EU cooperation indispensable. Together we can address the major challenges ahead of us. The European Commission and my services are here to help and to facilitate in this process.

Through this agenda and its planned actions, we are presenting a strengthened list of proposals for the region in all policy areas under Commissioner Mariya Gabriel’s portfolio. Through the foreseen actions and deliverables of this Agenda, we want to create new opportunities for the region’s students, researchers, innovators and cultural operators to support them accessing new markets, become more competitive and build sustainable prosperity. With this we want to contribute to unlocking the talent that is there across the whole region – and specifically with the youth.

The objective of this Agenda is to provide a positive and forward-looking vision for all citizens supporting the implementation of the Digital and Green Agendas for the Western Balkans. With citizens being an increasing and inevitable source of ideas and solutions, the region’s transition to a digital and green economy should not only be done at government and regulatory level, but also at societal level as a whole. This way, the benefits will have a bigger impact and will amplify with increased jobs, better services, faster economic growth, and a healthier environment.

We, together with the support of the Western Balkan economies, are confident that the implementation of this agenda will have a transformative effect in the region contributing to a long-term sustainable economic recovery and delivering on the EC priorities of a green transition and digital transformation.

How will the Western Balkans Agenda, through its three Thematic Axis deliver on the Commission priorities, green transition, digital transformation and an economy that works for and connects people?

In line with the this Commission’s political priorities, the Green transition, the Digital transformation, and an Economy that works for and connects people are essential for the relaunch and modernisation of the Western Balkan economies. The EC, through its Horizon Europe framework programme, will continue to support innovation measures in these thematic areas, specifically through its Missions, together with Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA), European Institute of Innovation and Technology and its Knowledge and Innovation Communities (EIT KICs), the new instrument for Pre-
Accession Assistance, and the implementation of Smart Specialisation Strategies. 

Delivering on these priorities though, will not be possible without the support, commitment and investment of the Western Balkan economies. At the same time, we are reaching out the to the EU Member States encouraging them to facilitate and support this process: Twinning actions come immediately to me my mind in this context.

Coming back to the Thematic Axis’ of the Agenda, its main priorities and accompanying actions include  strengthened cooperation with all the relevant partners within the EC with the aim of nurturing and further developing the thematic innovation ecosystems in the region, and supporting the involvement of Western Balkan partners in European strategic value chains.

Through increased participation in Horizon Europe programmes, partnerships and macro-regional strategies, promoting cross-sectoral nexus innovative approaches and knowledge sharing, we aim to encourage, support and guide the transition to clean, sustainable, competitive, secure, safe and smart energy.

For a Europe fit for the digital age, this agenda will contribute to adapting the region to the rapid transformative technological development in order to be more prosperous and competitive. Some of the actions planned include fostering the development of regional Digital Innovation Hubs and their linking to the Science and Technology Parks, and the EIT KICs as one-stop-shops supporting companies boost their competitiveness using digital technologies especially in the take up of artificial intelligence in the business sector (notably for SMEs) – in line with EU efforts and guidelines.

For an economy that works for peoplebuilding constructive partnerships and tackling common challenges through coordinated efforts to improve competitiveness, innovation and technology aiming to provide region-wide opportunities for growth is more important than ever. Following the examples of flagship projects that we are already supporting financially such as BioEAST, ANTARES, and the regional centres of excellence we aim to support the region in a paradigm shift in its economic development model towards a sustainable and circular economy – leapfrogging to innovative green technologies.  

 What concrete actions can national administrations and businesses take to support the Western Balkans Agenda?

The importance of joint efforts cannot be overstated. We need to work together with our Western Balkan partners to see how to attract investment, improve the human capital, support start-ups, and create conditions so that the potential of the talent is unlocked and stays in the region. Together we can achieve a closer integration of the Western Balkan by jointly addressing our common priorities.

With the COVID-19 outbreak and its implication in our societies, national policy interventions should aim at providing right conditions and incentives especially for innovative start-ups and potential entrepreneurs, and boost their potential and capabilities. Policy interventions should tackle short-term challenges, supporting short-term liquidity and availability of funding, and foster the ability of start-ups to grasp new business opportunities that may arise during and after the pandemics. In the long term, policies which reduce barriers to entrepreneurship, such as administrative burdens, providing tax and innovating support incentives, etc. should help limit detrimental effects and help speed up the recovery through the creation of new firms and employment.

How can Europe better interact with stakeholders in the Western Balkans to facilitate the transition to a knowledge-based society and a flourishing R&I eco-system?

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the twin green and digital transition at a time when the global competitive landscape is fundamentally changing. Deepening the Western Balkan’s digital economy integration to the EU’s digital single market will play a central role in relaunching and modernising the economies of the region.

Through linking the Western Balkan economies and bringing them closer to the European ones we aim to increase the economic productivity in specialised higher value-added and labour-intensive sectors.

We should not forget here the importance of the regional cooperation and coordination of efforts – particularly the role of the Regional Cooperation Council in answering to the present and future challenges. 

In the new research and innovation framework programming period, we aim to strengthen the regional cooperation among universities, research organisations and SMEs linking them into European Science, Technology and Innovation cooperation and exchange mechanisms (e.g. through integration into pan-European Research Infrastructures, Missions, European Partnerships, EIT etc.), as well as foster research, innovation, education and vocational training capacity building. 

An example of a very efficient interaction with the region’s key stakeholders is through our close cooperation with the Ministerial Steering Platforms on Education and Training, and on Research and Innovation. This cooperation will only deepen further and will expand to other innovation ecosystem actors, who play a crucial role in the research, tech and business landscape.

Through some of the planned actions of Horizon Europe, and close cooperation with our Western Balkan partners, we can provide a greater, better, and more cost effective access to financial services for enterprises and their integration into value chains and markets, which in turn will increase economic productivity in specialised, higher value-added and labour-intensive sectors and foster diversification, technological upgrading and innovation. At the same time this will increase the attractiveness of the region for young and female researchers, unlocking the region’s potential, and promoting brain circulation.

How can the Western Balkans region transition to sustainability? How challenging will it be to move in the direction of a circular economy?

In these challenging times, we find ourselves reflecting on what the future will look like, what measures should governments take, how to restart the economy and what we can do as citizens? While responding to the global health crisis, the European Commission is determined to pursue the design and adoption of this policy in the Western Balkans as reflected in the Green Agenda, and the Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans.

The Western Balkan countries, together with the EU, have the opportunity to make a bold decision about moving forward towards a sustainable decarbonised future and reap the region’s potential for a healthier environment. To maximise the impact of the European Green Deal for the whole continent, Western Balkans are an integral part of this deal. The countries are given equal opportunities and weight in order for the region to reach the 2030 and 2050 targets, while benefiting from the added value the region can offer. 

The circular economy should be used as a tool for contributing to the 2050 decarbonisation agenda. Smart investments must be done in the financial planning where budgets could be allocated only for measures which contribute to the circular economy, especially waste prevention, recycling, and composting for example. The next round of EU funds for pre-accession assistance as well as the European Investment Bank will be playing a key role here. 

Ambitious results need bold decisions at the right moment.  Preparing for the challenges ahead, as also highlighted in the Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans, we recommend governments of the region to stop building infrastructure which is not in line with a decarbonised, efficient, circular economy but rather invest in renewable energy, smart mobility, sustainable agriculture and industry and improving the business and investment environment.

How important is the forthcoming Horizon Europe for the Western Balkan countries? 

Association to the EU’s Framework Programme on Research and Innovation is the closest form of cooperation in science and technology. It reinforces Europe’s global reach in jointly addressing global challenges through multiplying the impact of R&I globally.

For the Associated Countries, and for the Western Balkans in particular, the association to EU’s research framework programmes since well over a decade now has proven instrumental for a smooth cooperation and funding of joint innovation projects enabling mutual access to scientific excellence, innovation and research resources. It has provided invaluable opportunities for human development, amplifying a chance of success in finding jointly solutions to global challenges.

Through association, EU and Western Balkans researchers and innovators are offered a broader opportunity to strengthen their alliances with key international partners at the time when the existing global governance system is put into test. This complements the existing alliances the EU is nourishing under its enlargement and neighbourhood policies, where association to Horizon is central in paving the way for transition toward stronger R&I capacity and performance as well as alignment of respective partners to EU’s values and standards.

Science and technology will be increasingly essential drivers of progress for the sustainable future of the European Union and partners alike. We have seen that the effect of association in support of innovation has been key to growth and instrument of systemic change, i.e. paving the way to EU accession of candidate countries or supporting fundamental reforms in neighbouring countries in transition. 

Sustainable cross-border innovation partnerships – also with European Union neighbouring regions, networking, joint programme actions, actions for scaling up innovative solutions, innovation intelligence gathering, and excellence clusters in the region are enabled through a successful association.

With regards to the Western Balkans, association and especially integration in the new European Research Area for Research and Innovation (ERA) represents a driver for national reforms and policy transitions towards a more performant R&I system, helping the region to increase its capacities and potential in infrastructures as well as its continued alignment with the acquis

Going forward, what are the next steps?

The EU and the Western Balkans are tackling common challenges together, as was clearly demonstrated by the unprecedented solidarity between the EU and the Western Balkans in addressing and mitigating the immediate impact of COVID-19. 

The European Union remains the region’s key partner, as was also reaffirmed by the Zagreb Declaration (6 May 2020) expressing the unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans, stressing also the importance and potential of regional cooperation in facilitating an economic recovery.

The EU is committed to further intensify its engagement with the region, shaping its European perspective, and supporting the implementation of systemic changes and reforms. This commitment was also confirmed in the latest Commission’s Communication on an Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans setting out a substantial investment package mobilising up to €9 billion of funding for the region. It will support sustainable connectivity, human capital, competitiveness and inclusive growth, and the twin green and digital transition. A further tangible measure of this commitment to deepen our engagement with the region is the forthcoming Western Balkans Agenda on Innovation, Research, Education, Culture, Youth and Sport.

In parallel, there needs to be a proactive engagement with the local stakeholders (business, academia, civil society, citizens) in the Western Balkan stakeholders, building up to the development and implementation of the Smart Specialisation Strategies aiming to enhance the innovation potential in the Western Balkan economies. This way, it will be possible to build resilient, actual plans for future growth and  ensure their implementation.

Despite many of the region’s economies are struggling to raise their competitiveness levels, there is presently a good momentum for the Western Balkan economies to engage towards jointly building a more sustainable future. We are here and ready to facilitate to support this process.

The integration of the Western Balkan countries into the EU is a major political and economic project designed to assure stability and prosperity across the region. From the very beginning, cooperation on research and innovation has been stimulated as a tool to facilitate that integration.

We are committed to supporting evidence-based policymaking and governance in the Western Balkan economies through sharing knowledge, providing tools and fostering collaboration. Now more than ever, the Western Balkans need to accelerate regional economic integration and deepen economic cooperation with the EU.

September 2020


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