From the town of Bitola in North Macedonia to the Greek border, there is a brand new, EU-funded railway line.
It was finally completed in 2019 after a series of contractor changes, delays, and additional funding, although no train has ever used it, casting doubt on the project’s utility.
This type of event would be less likely to happen if the EU paid more attention to regional specialized NGOs with the local knowledge to expose problems.
The EU has set aside €9 billion for infrastructure and growth-boosting projects in the Western Balkans, with an extra €20 billion in loans and private financing sought for the period 2021-2027.
However, Western Balkan countries perform poorly in terms of good governance and anti-corruption efforts.
And, as the EU prepares to provide the region with unprecedented sums of money from its taxpayers, it would be good to listen to civil society watchdogs who share European values.
The empty railway line is just one of many examples illustrating the difficulty of ensuring that EU funds are utilized in accordance with best practices.
North Macedonia intends to construct highway, railway, gas, and electrical infrastructure near Lake Ohrid, which is protected by Unesco.
In Serbia and Albania, there have also been severe abnormalities in public-tender procedures for metro and highway projects, as well as allegations of bribery and money laundering in North Macedonia.
Governance and structural problems in the Western Balkans have a direct impact on the efficient implementation of infrastructure projects.
The short-term goals of local political elites and decision-making processes do not necessarily coincide with the country’s and citizens’ long-term developmental needs.
Even if there is no evidence of claimed corruption, mismanagement usually results in increased costs, project delays, environmental damage, and, in some situations, project collapse.
More local eyes and ears on the ground are needed if the EU truly wants its €29 billion to promote the region’s post-pandemic recovery and enhance economic convergence.
Since 2015, specialized NGOs and think tanks in the Western Balkans have been monitoring individual projects under the EU’s connectivity agenda on an informal basis.
With so much money on the line, the time has come for a more methodical approach, involving the integration of NGO experts into the EU’s financial decision-making institutions for Western Balkans infrastructure projects.
By signing an open letter to EU Institutions, more than 20 specialized Western Balkan NGOs and think tanks have petitioned to be a part of the EU’s new budget-governance framework.
Increased NGO participation will promote transparency and accountability, as well as assist in overcoming the Western Balkans’ governmental institutions’ inherent structural deficiencies.
That is the only way to ensure that EU taxpayers’ money funds real reform and contributes to the larger EU-backed aim of bringing the Western Balkans up to European standards.