The success of the Green Lanes initiative and tangible support provided by the European Commission’s Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans represent excellent examples of EU-WB collaboration. It should ensure seamless cooperation with the EU, as the Western Balkans’ most important trade and investment partner, and regional economies
Adina Vălean, European Commissioner for Transport, is in charge of drafting a comprehensive strategy for sustainable and smart mobility, as well as developing a transport sector that must be clean, digital and ready to cater to an economy based on the same principles. Furthermore, her portfolio also includes a number of activities in the Western Balkans that will further connect the region, enabling it to live up to the same principles in connecting the dots between each other and the EU.
Indeed, the Green Lanes initiative proved to be an excellent example of EU-WB cooperation during times when COVID-19 threatened the transport of essential goods. We asked Commissioner Vălean what this episode tells us about mutual ties and cooperation between the region and the Union?
“We introduced the concept of Green Lanes at the beginning of the pandemic to keep freight moving in these difficult times and it certainly showed the benefits of joining forces for the common good.
“The Transport Community, the Central European Free Trade Area (CEFTA) and the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) jointly proposed that this concept also be used for the Western Balkans, with an agreement to prioritise certain essential goods, such as food and medical supplies, through an electronic exchange of information system between border authorities and by facilitating 24/7 operations of border agencies at defined border crossing points. This helped to ensure that there was no shortage of essential goods in the Western Balkans even during the most critical period of the pandemic. The Green Lanes are a great example that when we work together, with a common goal and determination, fantastic results can be achieved.
“Looking ahead to a life beyond COVID-19, the region must focus on sustainable solutions that will also help with the recovery from the pandemic. We aim to link the EU’s Green Lanes initiative to the Western Balkans at certain border crossing points between the EU and the region. Given that the EU is the Western Balkans’ most important trade and investment partner, we feel that the joining of the two initiatives is key and will benefit both parties. We hope that the Green Lanes will stay green long after the pandemic is over.”
Four Action Plans of the Transport Community Permanent Secretariat were unanimously endorsed at the Ministerial Council last October. They form a base for the Transport Community’s future engagement in the region. Please tell us what is the essence of these documents?
The four Transport Community action plans are blueprints for delivering important goals for the region – safer roads, reduced waiting time at border crossing points and a modern and sustainable rail and road network. The ultimate aim of the action plans is to ensure that transport systems in the region are safe, sustainable and resilient.
The documents are aligned with the European Commission’s Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans, which envisages EU investments in transport and connectivity projects that will contribute to further integration within the region and better ties with the EU.
The “Road Safety Action Plan” promotes safety management, safer infrastructure and the protection of road users. The plan has as its “vision zero” target. In other words, a target of no deaths or serious injuries on the region’s roads. It also aims to encourage best practices in relation to road safety.
The “Transport Facilitation Action Plan” will further strengthen regional cooperation and aims to create joint “one-stop-go” facilities at internal and external border crossing points. Reducing waiting time at the border crossings is potentially one of the quickest and cheapest way of making businesses in the region more competitive, reducing CO2 emissions from waiting vehicles and generally improving the quality of life for citizens. The “Rail Action Plan” provides the basis for deeper integration with the EU rail market. The overarching aim is to have a rail system that is safe, inclusive, reliable, environmentally and socially sustainable and inter-connected within the region and with the EU.
Finally, the “Road Action Plan” aims to develop a climate resilient, intelligent and resource-efficient TEN-T road network in the Western Balkans by incorporating green and smart elements into road investments. Our ultimate aim is to stimulate road transport operations that are innovative, low emission and fit for the digital age.
As you’ve noted, the Road Action Plan aims to develop a climate resilient, intelligent and resource-efficient TEN-T road network in the Western Balkans. How much is this vision incorporated into existing road investments in Serbia?
I would like to stress that efforts to improve transport in the Western Balkans should focus all modes of transport. When it comes to the road network in the region, it should be upgraded to include green and smart elements. The key to achieving this is to develop a climate-resilient, intelligent and resource-efficient Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) for road that will spur economic development. Incorporating environmentally friendly improvements – such as electronic charging stations along the TEN-T network – is one of the priorities specified in the Transport Community’s Road Action Plan.
Serbia has already taken its first steps in this direction. It is currently preparing a national strategy for the deployment of ITS across all modes of transport. Furthermore, along Corridor X in Serbia there are five fully functioning e-charging stations. Ultimately, we would like to see Serbia’s roads integrated into a seamless network that will serve both businesses and citizens.
The creation of joint “one-stop-go” facilities at internal and external border crossing points should enable smoother, more efficient and less costly logistics chains. How far have we advanced in establishing such a mode of functioning?
In Serbia there is a very successful one-stop border crossing point functioning at the Preševo-Tabanovce border, where customs and border authorities of both Serbia and North Macedonia are working together at the same facility. This integrated border crossing is an inspiration and a shining example for the region.
We would like to see many more one-stop border crossing points like the Preševo-Tabanovce example rolled out across the Western Balkans. This is also one of the aims of the Transport Community’s transport facilitation action plan.
We aim to link the EU’s Green Lanes initiative to the Western Balkans at certain border crossing points between the EU and the region. We feel that the joining of the two initiatives is key and will benefit both parties
The joint declaration of a new Regional Rail Strategy in the Western Balkans, which was endorsed by transport ministers and representatives of the Western Balkans at the end of 2018, provided the starting point for the development of the Regional Rail Action Plan. To what extent have the deadlines set been hampered as a result of the pandemic?
All actions mentioned in the Transport Community’s Rail Action Plan are fully on track. Rail is one of the key modes in terms of reaching our sustainability objectives. The objectives of the Rail Action Plan are completely aligned with the strategic of the EU regarding the improvement of rail transport systems.
I would also like to take this opportunity to mention that 2021 is the “European Year of Rail”. This will create momentum to help increase rail’s share of passenger and freight transport. Through a number of activities in the EU and the Western Balkan region this year, we will raise the profile of this important, safe and sustainable mode of transport – and I would like to invite your readers to get involved. Take a look at our dedicated website, https://europa.eu/year-of-rail, and read all about it.
How satisfied are you with the pace of the modernisation of Serbia’s railway infrastructure?
Serbia is often cited as a regional leader in this regard. Its extensive rail project pipeline covers most of the Serbian rail network and focuses on renovation, modernisation and the construction of new lines.
When executed, this will increase the efficiency of rail transport in the country. However, Serbia and other regional partners need more sustainable maintenance plans for their railway infrastructure. In other words, a balance needs to be struck between new infrastructure projects and maintenance of the current rail network.
Safety management, safer infrastructure and the protection of road users represent one of the cornerstones of the EU agenda in general. To what extent have these policies found their application in Serbia and across the Western Balkans?
The EU is committed to making the roads of the region safer for everybody. Our aim is to ensure that transport systems are safe, sustainable and resilient. Road crashes may be an everyday occurrence, but they are both predictable and preventable.
The measures that Serbia has taken as part of the “UN Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011–2020” have reduced road traffic deaths significantly. Those measures include the strengthening of road safety management, improving data collection, adopting new legislation and capacity building for transport police. There was a 25% decrease in road fatalities in 2020 compared to 2010.
Notwithstanding the positive results achieved to date, there is still plenty of room for improvement – after all, our aim is to reduce road deaths to zero.
The 2020 Stockholm Declaration, supported by the EU, will provide guidance on road safety measures up to 2030. One of the focuses of the declaration is on the role of international cooperation in improving road safety at a global level. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the concrete results of these efforts in Serbia.
How would you assess the progress Serbia has made in the transport sector with regard to the EU accession process and corresponding chapters?
Serbia has a good level of preparation under Chapter 14 – Transport. I would nonetheless encourage Serbia to continue with its rail reforms, to continue implementing connectivity reform measures and to improve prioritisation and the preparation of transport infrastructure.
Under Chapter 21 – Trans-European networks, Serbia currently has a framework that could be defined as moderately prepared. Efforts need to be exerted to strengthen administrative capacities for transposing, implementing and enforcing the Trans-European Networks acquis. Serbia also needs to revise and adopt an updated transport strategy that’s in line with EU guidelines for the development of the Trans-European Transport Network.
Finally, I would stress the importance of all rail infrastructure complying with the EU’s technical specifications for interoperability and the fact that investments need to be implemented in accordance with cost-benefit analyses that adheres to EU best practices.
The Social Forum is a platform for dialogue between key transport stakeholders of the European Union and the Western Balkans Regional Partners. Which messages would you like to convey to our readers from the last meeting, held this February?
It was my pleasure to attend the Social Forum of the Transport Community this year. The event shed light on social issues in rail. It was particularly apt that the event was dedicated to rail, given that 2021 is the European Year of Rail.
As we explain in our new Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy, we want to make careers in the transport sector more attractive, from working conditions to reskilling opportunities and career prospects.
We are also stepping up protection for rail passenger rights, with new rules coming into force this year. These will make it easier for passengers with reduced mobility to access rail and ensure that their rights are protected. I would encourage our Western Balkan partners to align their social and passenger rights legislation with that of the EU. This will facilitate closer cooperation and transport integration in the future. More work is needed on transport links between the EU and the Western Balkans, and on rail in particular. That is clear. Nevertheless, I would like to congratulate the Transport Community on the progress made on the Rail Action Plan, and for the events planned to take place throughout the European Year of Rail.
We would like to see Serbia’s roads integrated into a seamless network that will serve both businesses and citizens.
I would encourage Serbia to continue with its rail reforms and to improve prioritisation and the preparation of transport infrastructure.
It would be good to have many more onestop border crossing points like the Preševo- Tabanovce example rolled out across the Western Balkans.