There are many examples of excellent cooperation between the EU and the Western Balkan countries in the portfolio of the European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth. In this interview with Commissioner Mariya Gabriel we address some of the most notable, such as those supported by the Horizon Europe programme, Erasmus+, the Digital Europe Programme and the Enterprise Europe Network
While Western Balkan countries remain at different stages of the EU accession process, they enjoy the support of the European Union in many areas crucial to their further development – not only in terms of economic growth, but also in many other fields that are important to their European future and wellbeing. Our interview with Commissioner Gabriel serves as an example of the impressive level of cooperation between the European Union and Western Balkan countries. If we want to mention just a few of them, let’s say that all Western Balkan partners have been fully integrated into the Horizon Europe programme for the very first time.
Moreover, their participation in the Erasmus+ programme has been renewed and expanded, while the region now also has access to various other initiatives, such as the Digital Europe Programme and the Enterprise Europe Network. And yet our interview with Commissioner Gabriel reveals many more areas of fruitful cooperation.
To what extent is the Western Balkans Agenda on Innovation, Research, Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, which was launched at the end of 2021, operational today?
The implementation of the Agenda is in full swing. Following the launch of the Western Balkans Agenda at the Brdo EU-Western Balkans Summit on 6th October 2021, I have continued my regular meetings with government ministers around the region. In Tirana last year, together with ministers for Culture, Education and Research, we took stock of the achievements of this joint agenda. The event resulted in a number of tangible deliverables across different sectors: we launched the Western Balkans Ministerial Platform on Culture, through which the exchange of best practices, knowledge and experiences will raise our joint work in the field of culture to the next level. I also announced the creation of a new Enhanced Partnership with the Western Balkans under the Erasmus+ programme. This means that education organisations and institutions in the Western Balkans that aren’t already associated with the programme will have the possibility to take part in important strategic actions, such as the European Universities initiative.
And we delivered! This year’s Erasmus+ call was already open to all, and we really hope that universities from the region will take full advantage of this opportunity. As a next step, in the following years I would like to extend access to even more initiatives to the four Western Balkan economies not currently associated with the programme. We looked at the reform of education systems in the region and the need to create further youth opportunities, highlighting the opportunities offered by the Erasmus+ and European Solidarity Corps programmes, notably in light of the legacy of the European Year of Youth 2022.
I look forward to the upcoming ministerial meeting in Skopje in early June, at which we will discuss with ministers of Western Balkan countries synergies between education and innovation, including how to scale up skills for young researchers and innovators
The meeting in Tirana also gave me the opportunity to present the JRC Science for Policy Report “Status of Environment and Climate in the Western Balkans”, which forms the baseline for our efforts aimed at improving air quality across the region; we highlighted and celebrated the fact that three cities from the Western Balkans are part of the Climate- Neutral and Smart Cities Mission; while we also announced that increased financial resources are made available for innovation. For the first time, we have ensured that all six Western Balkan economies are participating in our flagship research and innovation programme – Horizon Europe – as associated countries. Their results for the first two years are well above the levels of the previous framework programmes.
I will also mention the first edition of the Regional Butterfly Innovation Award, which we awarded together with the Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council, Majlinda Bregu. I was very pleased to see how present the innovation culture is in the Western Balkans. The high level of participation – over 150 applicants – is an outstanding sign of the innovation potential of the region. I look forward to the upcoming ministerial meeting in Skopje in early June, at which we will discuss with ministers of Western Balkan countries synergies between education and innovation, including how to scale up skills for young researchers and innovators.
When we consider the Agenda from the perspective of its three main pillars, i.e., support to the economy and job creation, closer alignment with the EU’s strategic priorities and encouraging creative solutions to foster economic growth and stability across the region, which one do you see as gaining the most interest from the EU and Western Balkan counterparts?
Taking stock of the past two years of very close cooperation between Western Balkan partners, the European Commission and EU Member States, I see that the first pillar has gained the highest momentum. This is underlined by the fact that all Western Balkan partners are fully associated with Horizon Europe for the first time, participation in Erasmus+ has been renewed and deepened, and we see further initiatives, such as the Digital Europe Programme or the Enterprise Europe Network, that are now accessible to the region.
It is said that Research Infrastructures (RI) can improve anything from geopolitical tensions, the brain drain and limp economic growth. How relevant are they today, when the Western Balkan region is suffering from all three?
Indeed, joint experimental facilities, joint survey programmes or large infrastructure projects bring together transnational financial resources and international specialist teams based on requirements that extend beyond the scope of individual countries. Research infrastructure projects are conceived as truly international projects, and world-class international science and technology cooperation is taking place.
Thanks to the support efforts of the Regional Cooperation Council, we now have Research Infrastructure Roadmaps for the Western Balkans. Key research infrastructures are located around the Western Balkans, some of which are already fully embedded in the Western Balkans research and innovation ecosystems. I last year launched the 12th round of the European Social Survey research infrastructure, which is fully open to the Western Balkans. Via Horizon Europe, scientists from the Western Balkans have full access to such world-class infrastructure.
How is the current agenda related to previous efforts to draft Smart Specialisation Strategies of the Western Balkan countries that replicate the same documents in the EU?
Smart Specialisation contributes to the enhancement of research and innovation potential across the Western Balkans by focusing on a set of priorities. It is a fundamental part of the second pillar of the Western Balkans Agenda, which combines different areas, including economic, industrial, innovation, labour market and education policies. In helping to develop their links with research and innovation, it often serves as an entry point to understand the broader structural problems confronting a region.
Thanks to the support efforts of the Regional Cooperation Council, we now have Research Infrastructure Roadmaps for the Western Balkans
Serbia and Montenegro are already implementing their Smart Specialisation Strategies. Over the course of this year, we expect three more partners to complete their efforts to establish strategies. As a next step, we will look into identifying synergies and communalities at the regional and macro-regional levels. The first efforts across the Adriatic, in the area of the blue-economy, have already begun.
While implementation of Smart Specialisation Strategies in the EU is supported by considerable funding, in Western Balkan countries their application is dependent on national resources. However, it seems that there are certain developments in the area of agriculture and green transformation where we see efforts to align those policies. Can you tell us more about this?
The development and alignment of Smart Specialisation Strategies has been supported by the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance, as well as by Horizon Europe’s dedicated support to the Western Balkans. Smart and Sustainable Specialisation Strategies strengthen cooperation between stakeholders and enhance innovation potential. One of the most important stages of the strategy design process centres on position the new strategy within the existing legal framework and coordinating sectoral policies.
In this context, the agri-food sector has been identified several times as one of the priorities in the region. Together with the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance for Rural Development (IPARD), we have been working on innovative measure to facilitate rural development via sustainable agriculture and food production. Across the region, we see innovative measures for improving irrigation, as well as the application of agri-solar schemes for sustainable food production.
The €1 billion Energy Support Package presented at the end of last year by President von der Leyen is key to the region’s green and sustainable energy transition. I am particularly pleased to see that these funds are being used for innovative and renewable energy supply schemes. I look forward to hearing more such good news from the region at our next ministerial meeting of the Western Balkans Agenda.
Smart Specialisation Strategies are only one of several important reports provisioned by the Joint Research Centre (JRC) in collaboration with domestic researchers. How do you see the further role of JRC research in aligning Western Balkan and EU cohesion priorities?
The Joint Research Centre has been the driving force behind Smart Specialisation Strategies. The support to Western Balkan governments has helped identify innovation priority areas and the most effective policy instruments for research and innovation. JRC colleagues have facilitated the dialogue between stakeholders and suggested ways for academia and business to cooperate.
We have so far concentrated our support on upgrading innovation capacities and developing the competitiveness of the Western Balkan region. As a next step, we are looking at the broader context, especially when it comes to the establishment of a more competitive and smarter Europe – with a fully integrated Western Balkan region.
The recent report on innovation readiness in the EU shows a stark divide between well-developed western and eastern members of the EU, while Eastern and Southeast Europe lag behind. How can this gap be addressed and will these efforts also include Western Balkan countries?
The fact that innovation cohesion is strengthening not only among Member States, but also among regions within a single country, makes me very happy. Ten years ago, in an effort to create a more unified and interconnected European research and innovation ecosystem, a dedicated Widening component was incorporated into research and innovation programmes. The Horizon Europe programme increased the budget for this expansion significantly, from €900 million to €2.9 billion. By taking part in this portion of the programme, Western Balkan countries can improve their research and innovation infrastructure.
The start-up scene in the Western Balkans has been growing rapidly over the past few years. The vast majority of these start-ups are in their early phases and are involved in software, eCommerce, digital marketing (AdTech) or gaming. However, the ecosystem is beginning to show signs of diversifying into new fields, including those that merge software and the physical world, such as healthcare, infrastructure, education, manufacturing, and agritech (aka deep tech innovations).
The New European Innovation Agenda targets deep tech innovations squarely. From mobilising 45 billion euros to training a million Europeans in deep technology fields, to establishing a hundred regional innovation valleys, the Agenda covers a wide range of possibilities. As a result of the talent pool and the investment opportunities presented by the New European Innovation Agenda, I believe that many of these innovation valleys will be established by regional authorities in the Western Balkans. I will be glad to assist Western Balkan authorities in creating these innovation valleys.
What are the concrete opportunities offered by the EU when it comes to raising skills and competencies among people in the region?
In today’s world, innovation is closely linked to digital knowhow. I strongly believe that education plays a fundamental role in this. We have to equip our young people with digital skills and competencies, and to ensure a just and high-quality digital transition for all. Young people are at the forefront of the digital decade. They should be aware that they have the power to lead and shape it. The Digital Education Action Plan recognises the Western Balkans as a priority. It is a key EU strategy to boost the digital skills of young people.
Addressing regional disparities in innovation capacity across the EU is one of the main objectives of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology. In order to meet the objectives of the New European Innovation Agenda, the EIT is implementing the Deep Tech Talent Initiative flagship aimed at skilling, re-skilling and upskilling a million talented individuals in deep tech by 2025. This definitely includes talented people from the Western Balkans.
For the first time, we have ensured that all six Western Balkan economies are participating in our flagship research and innovation programme – Horizon Europe – as associated countries
It will foster entrepreneurial skills to better translate academic knowledge and research into real life products and services. The upcoming Call on Excellence Hubs, with €60 million of funding available, addresses the innovation divide specifically, and ways to improve links between science and business. Its new mentoring module supports emerging place-based innovation ecosystem established in the Western Balkans.
How can women in innovation be supported?
Supporting women in having a fair share of the European deep tech industries is one of the intrinsic responsibilities and objectives of the EU-wide deep tech talent initiative. And I do believe that, beyond numbers, the success of this initiative will also be measured against its concrete contribution to creating a more equal and inclusive deep tech community.
We have launched several programmes, such as the EIT’s Women2Invest Programme and the EU Prize for Women Innovators. With the new European Innovation Agenda, we will further boost our efforts towards ensuring a gender balance. The European Innovation Council (EIC) Women Entrepreneurship and Leadership scheme provides tangible support for early-stage women-led tech start-ups. We have introduced a specific ‘WomenTech EU’ call that will feed into other EU initiatives, such as ‘Women4Cyber’, and should inspire local and regional accelerator programmes, in order to speed up the growth of women-led companies.
Innovative measures are being implemented across the region to enhance irrigation and promote sustainable food production, such as the adoption of agri-solar schemes
The Digital Education Action Plan, as a key EU strategy to boost the digital skills of young people, sees youth in the Western Balkans as one of its priorities
The region has showcased successful utilisation of the Energy Support Package for its green and sustainable energy transition, while more positive developments are also expected