CEFTA: nurturing relationships through trade promotion

March 14, 2022 – A hybrid event “CEFTA and Civil Society: promoting trade and fostering relations in CEFTA parties” was held in Belgrade today. This event was organised in cooperation with the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) and the European Policy Centre (CEP). The event was aimed at civil society organisations, government representatives, experts and academia from CEFTA parties.

The event was opened by the Director of the CEFTA Secretariat, Emir Đikić, and Nebojša Lazarević, co-founder of the CEP. Đikić briefly presented what has been achieved so far within CEFTA, although not so much is visible in the public and in the media, while Lazarević spoke about the joint initiative on which CEP and CEFTA worked, in order to increase the involvement of civil society and citizens.

The first panel, Regional Common Market: How to seize opportunities, was moderated by Ian Bancroft, PeaceTraining Consultant, and was attended by David Hudson of the European Commission’s Directorate for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy (DG NEAR), Tanja Miščević, Deputy Secretary-General of the Regional Cooperation Council. (RCC), Emir Đikić and Nebojša Lazarević.

“We must emphasize that regional cooperation is not important in itself, but only as a part of wider European integrations of the entire region of the Western Balkans,” Miscevic pointed out.

David Hudson pointed out that the Common Regional Market is an essential part of the Economic and Investment Plan, while Nebojsa Lazarević highlighted that CRM is an appropriate exercise for the Western Balkans before joining the European Union.

“Although many claim that the Common Regional Market will not succeed due to the amount of history between the partner countries, I don’t think that will be the case. There was ‘a lot of history’ between the countries that founded the European Economic Area in the 1950s, too,” Lazarević said.

Đikić said how it is “very difficult to communicate something that is not clearly visible”, and that is why only a small niche of the society is aware of what CEFTA achieved (Harmonization of the veterinary certificate on honey products is an example), even though “benefits are there, products are cheaper and available faster”.

The second panel, on CEFTA and social achievements: why would civil society be more involved in CEFTA-related topics, was moderated by Ranka Miljenović, CEP Executive Director. Former ambassador and Head of the Delegation of Serbia to the EU, Dusko Lopandić, Researcher at the Institute for European Policy (EPI) in Skopje, Stefan Ristovski, and Zeljko Tomović, legal adviser at the Center for Consumer Protection (CEZAP) in Podgorica, took part.

“Before CEFTA, we had a Spaghetti bowl of bilateral agreements between the countries, but it was not regulated systematically as it is now. CEFTA is the basic “playing field” for regional cooperation and is extremely important for the progress and economic growth of the entire region”, Lopandić said.

Civil society is perhaps the biggest supporter of regional cooperation, they are not only promoters but also valuable contributors; different types of organisations – think tanks, trade unions, CSOs dealing with specific issues (human rights, environment, welfare, etc.) need to be more involved in these topics, in order to represent their interests, Ristovski highlighted.

Željko Tomović pointed out that with the creation of the single market is the creation of the European Union also started, and that is why it is important that the Western Balkans really dedicate itself to the Common Regional Market. He also pointed out that the public does not recognize CEFTA’s technical problems, that therefore civil society organizations need to be more involved, and that more initiatives are needed that bring feedback from civil society.

The third panel The Fourth Industrial Revolution and e-Commerce: The CEFTA Partner’s Perspective was attended by Marija Ristovska, from the e-Commerce Association, Skopje, and Agon Bejta from the Cluster for e-commerce, Pristina. The panel was moderated by Dušan Protić, Program Manager for Internal Market and Competitiveness at CEP.

“Regional cooperation on e-commerce is necessary: we cannot do anything alone,” Bejta said.

Marija Ristovska pointed out that the state of e-commerce in CEFTA members is far lower than in the EU27, that e-shops sell mainly at the local level and that none of the basic EU rules is fully met. Closer cooperation is necessary, and the joint commitment of all CEFTA partners will enable the Western Balkans to make the most of the Common Regional Market, Ristovska concluded.

After the third panel, the authors of the three best policy proposals awarded in the competition organized by CEP and CEFTA presented their works.