[Read more session reports and live updates from the 2nd Western Balkan Digital Summit]
The second Western Balkans Digital Summit was opened by Ms Ana Brnabić (Prime Minister, Republic of Serbia) who emphasised the importance of this event for the economic and social development of the Western Balkans region. Brnabić noted that it is essential for the Western Balkans to continue working on enhancing regional co-operation and strengthening the stability of the region. She then saluted the readiness of the Western Balkan economies to sign the regional roaming agreement, a milestone that outlines a roadmap to be followed: more co-operation, more agreements, and more mutual understanding for the benefit of all citizens. Speaking about digital technologies and the fourth industrial revolution, the prime minister noted that we live in a time of great change. But the Western Balkans are used to changes, so it is now time for the region to catch up and use its creativity and potential to adapt to its best opportunities. Brnabić concluded her remarks by noting that the summit should also serve as an invitation for the region to be pragmatical when it comes to its way forward to sustainable digital development: while we might have a difficult road ahead of us, if we are committed, this road would take us in the right direction. Regardless of any political differences, we should give our best to build a stable and interconnected region.
Ms Mariya Gabriel (European Commissioner in charge of Digital Economy and Society) noted that much progress has been made since last June, when the Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans was launched. Since then, a strong political will for change was shown in the region, and this was reflected at the summit in the signing of the regional roaming agreement (with significant advantages for people and business in the region). Other significant advancements were made in the region as well, such as: improvements in broadband strategies and deployment, development of information and communication technology (ICT) strategies, adoption of cybersecurity laws, and the memorandum of understanding on the creation of a 5G corridor between Thessaloniki, Sofia and Belgrade. It is important that these and similar efforts reflect advantages for individuals and for the economy, including start-ups (for which a stronger ecosystem should be built in the region). Gabriel encouraged the Western Balkans to maintain a steady European path, and emphasised that only by working together, in a true spirit of co-operation, a dynamic digital partnership can be achieved between the EU and WB6.
Ms Majlinda Bregu (Secretary General, Regional Cooperation Council) underlined that the summit is a unique opportunity for the Western Balkan economies to learn from each other, to set common goals regarding digitalisation processes, and to agree on how to best reach them. The Digital Agenda for the Western Balkans, with its pillars focusing on issues such as digital skills, roaming and cybersecurity, is key towards the digital integration of the region. But there is much more to be done, as the digital transformation of the region is yet to be seen. Obstacles such as lack of co-operation among companies, outdated educational systems, fragmented regulatory frameworks, and a vulnerable cyberspace have to be surpassed if we want the digital revolution of the region to really happen. Western Balkan economies need to devise smart policies that maximise opportunities offered by digital technologies, while minimising the associated risks and challenges.
Mr Houlin Zhao (Secretary General, International Telecommunication Union (ITU)) saluted the roaming agreement, as a show of leadership and determination of regional economies to work together. It is encouraging, he noted, that the agreement is not seen as a mean in itself, but rather as the start of further co-operation mechanisms that will strengthen the region and bring it closer to the EU. The ITU appreciates these efforts and is ready to assist in taking them forward. Zhao also noted that the summit is a welcome initiative to highlight the region’s priorities focused on digitalisation processes and on achieving the sustainable digital goals. He finished his speech by encouraging stakeholders in the region to continue to contribute to ITU activities.
Ms Mirjana Spoljaric-Egger (Director, Regional Bureau for Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (RBEC), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)) noted that the summit is a testimony to a new paradigm for a region which is eager to use the fourth industrial revolution to the benefit of its people. The UNDP is willing to assist economies enhance their competitiveness in the digital economy and ensure that digital technologies help society advance without leaving anyone behind. The organisation is ready to help the region devise policies that can ensure a smooth adaptation to the challenges of new technologies. While congratulating the Western Balkans for the roaming agreement, Spoljaric-Egger noted that the UNDP is constantly exploring possibilities to promote and support regional initiatives and is committed to helping build a sustainable digital future.
Mr Ulrik Vestergaard Knudsen (Deputy Secretary General, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)) started off by explaining that the OECD has partnered with WB6 to foster digital regional co-operation, and has also supported the Berlin process since its launch in 2014. The organisation shares the ambition to foster regional co-operation and sustainable growth in the Western Balkans. The digital revolution comes with great prospects for the region, but also with challenges, and the OECD is ready to help the region harness the opportunities of this revolution. Vestergaard Knudsen underlined a few key messages for the region: bridging the digital divides, empowering people to succeed in the fast-changing world of work, strengthening trust, and enhancing access to and sharing of data to support innovation. An effective digital agenda can be an important driver for inclusive and sustainable growth and facilitate regional co-operation. Governments must be prepared with policy responses to ensure that no one is left behind in the context of digitalisation, and the OECD is ready to support WB6 to create better digital policies for better lives.
Mr Miguel Morgado (Head, Adriatic Sea Department, Operations Directorate, European Investment Bank (EIB)) explained that the EIB has been present in the region for the last decade, and is supporting projects in many areas, focusing on social and economic development. The Western Balkans have the opportunity to take advantage of digitalisation, because they have fewer legacy systems in place, so it would be easier to move directly to the implementation of new digital systems. In Morgado’s view, the region should focus efforts on two main priorities: fostering digital literacy and enhancing access to digital technologies, and enhancing cybersecurity to create a safe cyberspace. The EIB could be of assistance in these and other areas, both through facilitating investments and providing technical assistance focused on helping WB economies better design and implement projects and improve the impact of investments.
Mr Karol Okoński (Secretary of State, Government Plenipotentiary for Cybersecurity, Poland) noted that Poland has maintained closed connection with the Western Balkans for a long time. This year, as the country holds the presidency of the Berlin Process, Poland stands ready to support pro-European reforms in the Balkans region and foster stronger ties between the EU and the Western Balkans. The efficient digitalisation of the region would contribute to a swift European integration, and it also represents a valuable opportunity for faster economic and social progress. Okoński concluded by congratulating WB6 for the roaming agreement and encouraging economies to come forward with similar co-operation mechanisms on other issues as well. If a united front is maintained, the region will gain much more capacity for innovation and growth.
Mr Marko Čadež (President of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Serbia (CCIS)) expressed appreciation towards the signing of the roaming agreement, noting that the economies of the region are ‘writing a new page of history’, one which is not disconnected, but connected through digital infrastructure. He encouraged participants of the summit to use it as an opportunity to develop new partnerships and make business deals, as this would support the digitalisation of the region.
The session concluded with the signing of the regional roaming agreement between the six Western Balkans economies.
By Sorina Teleanu