EUKI Interview: Recapping the Panel Sessions of the Western Balkans EUKI Networking Conference

by Julian-Maximilian Dreyer & Levin Kettler, GIZ / EUKI

In order to strengthen the dialogue and cooperation between civil society and local and national policy makers from the six Western Balkan countries, Germany, and other neighbouring EU Member States, the EUKI Academy hosted the Western Balkans EUKI Networking Conference on 25-27 September 2023 in Tirana, Albania. Valbona Mazreku (Executive Director at Milieukontakt Albania, representing EUKI project EUCENA) and Vedad Suljic (Managing Director at CETEOR, representing EUKI project Balkan Solar Roofs) joined the conference on site. We talked to Valbona and Vedad to dive deeper into the event’s results and to hear about their experiences from Tirana.

Published: 19 October 2023
Panel discussion at the main conference day of the Western Balkans EUKI Networking Conference in Tirana, Albania. Photo: ©Elvis Dako / EUKI

In which way could the Western Balkans EUKI Networking Conference create lasting linkages between the civil society, EUKI projects, and the policy makers?

Valbona M.: The Western Balkans EUKI Networking Conference reconfirmed that the EUKI community is growing and inspiring for all members. For me it is the second time attending an EUKI Networking Meeting (Berlin 2022 and Tirana 2023) and the presence of diverse actors as well as representatives from different countries has created a possibility to share successes and challenges as well as to get acquainted with the process of the EU integration and the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans (GAWB). Above all, implementers and partners had the possibility to interact with policy makers and push forward for building capacities, providing financial mechanisms and more activism.

Valbona Mazreku, Executive Director at Mileukontakt Albania

She has been a member of different working groups developing strategies and policies on environmental themes. She has an in-depth knowledge of the environmental sector, especially regarding values and problems in Albania. In the past, she has worked on different projects related with waste management, progress monitoring of EU directives, CSO development through capacity building and fundraising, as well as monitoring and supervision of international funded projects. With her EUKI project EUCENA, Valbona created and shared the necessary knowledge to increase the number of energy communities in Southeast Europe, paying special attention to gender justice and business model innovation.

Vedad S.: The conference had people from different groups – from Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) to top decision-makers. This mix helped everyone see different viewpoints and talk about many different solutions. One big success of the conference was creating a place for regular chats in the future. This way, we can keep the good energy going and work better together. By talking about EUKI projects, the conference showed how these projects work in real life. It connected big talk with real actions.

Vedad Suljic, Managing Director at CETEOR

He has experience as a consultant and project manager with a focus on green economy and green finance topics in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Montenegro. He is an expert for energy (energy efficiency, renewable energy sources) and environmental questions (air emissions, air quality, waste management). With his EUKI project Balkan Solar Roofs, Vedad is engaging city administrations and citizens in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia, in solar community energy.

If you think about the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans: Where do you see the benefits brought about by a regional climate action approach in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia?

Valbona M.: The Green Agenda for the Western Balkans is a regional climate approach, connecting countries that need support with expert resources. They connect CSOs with the policymakers and donors who can help chart a low-emission path forward. By building capacity and sharing knowledge on topics the EUKI platform enable both local action and foster effective regional cooperation.

Vedad S.: When countries work together, they can use everyone’s strengths and resources. Working together lets countries share what they know and learn from each other. One country’s success can serve as a blueprint for others. A regional approach can pave the way for standardized policies and regulations, making it easier for businesses to operate across borders, leading to enhanced trade and investment. Since climate problems don’t stop at country borders, countries need to work together to solve issues like shared water, air problems, and protecting nature.

Not only during the first panel but also during previous group discussions, several representatives of Western Balkan governments joined the civil society in conversation. Which conclusions do you draw out of what you heard from policy makers during the conference?

Valbona M.: The Green Agenda for the Western Balkans comes as an annex to the Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkan countries. Short-term economic investments might prevail over the long-term sustainability with some investments running counter to the objectives of the European Green Deal. For instance, investments in gas infrastructure must respect environmental rights in line with the Aarhus Convention, in hydropower, airports (case of Albania), and so on. All investments must be aligned with the EU’s environmental objectives, must reduce inequalities and avoid environmental conflicts.

Vedad S.: Policymakers know that working with CSOs is key for a successful climate change action. They understand how urgent our climate and environment issues are. Everyone agreed that countries in the Western Balkans should work together because they face similar challenges. Policymakers highlighted the importance of capacity building at various administrative levels to ensure the effective implementation of environmental policies.

Particularly during the launch event of the Climate Bridges Network, participants discussed what is needed to accelerate progress in the implementation of the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans. What do you think civil society, especially EUKI-projects, must contribute to this process?

Valbona M.: With specific dedication to the issue and their know-how, Energy Service Companies (ECSOs) are integral in crafting appropriate legislation and ensuring just implementation. They are instrumental in raising awareness and monitoring the state of environment, while also being important bridge between the EU and local and national Western Balkan governments. Regional networking is a particularly effective strategy, with an emphasis on using regional organisations and platforms to facilitate communication and cooperation.

Vedad S.: EUKI projects have lots of experience from different places, and they can share what they’ve learned. This can help the Western Balkans learn faster and use good strategies. EUKI projects, with their expertise, can offer training sessions, workshops, and resources to build capacities at both local and national levels. This will ensure that there is both the will and the skill to implement the Green Agenda effectively. CSOs are often trusted by the public, so their support can make more people believe in and support the Green Agenda.

During the conference, significant impediments to progress climate action in the Western Balkans have been discussed. What do you think is the most significant challenge to accelerate climate action in the Western Balkans? What measures collectively proposed you think seem fit to address these challenges?

Valbona M.: Plans and strategies are successful when they are discussed and agreed among all key stakeholders. Climate actions should not be considered as tick the box event. Both parties, government institutions and CSO should look and reach for participation, common activities, and transparency. Inclusion and follow up with NGOs, would also ensure representation and active role in the implementation of disadvantaged groups such as women, young people and older people, low-income groups and the rural population, ethnic and religious minorities including Roma communities.

Vedad S.: A big problem we talked about at the conference is that the Western Balkans often struggle to put plans into action. Even when there are good plans, they aren’t always done well because there’s not enough know-how at different levels of government. Especially with the Green Agenda, we need more knowledge and technical skills. Often, lower levels of administration, such as local municipalities, are tasked with implementing climate initiatives. Tailored training sessions, workshops, and educational programs targeting both state and lower levels of administration are needed. These should focus on building both technical and managerial capacities for effective implementation. Designing a specific curriculum tailored for civil servants in the Western Balkans can address the unique challenges and needs of the region. By ensuring they are equipped with the knowledge and tools needed, we can accelerate the Green Agenda’s implementation. We also need to work together with large international groups and get support from the EU to make sure we have funds and resources for our climate goals.

Would you like to share any other aspects which were discussed and stood out to you?

Valbona M.: Accelerating renewables is crucial for tackling climate change and energy dependence. But it must be balanced with nature protection. Importantly, the public must have the right to address its concerns through public consultations.

Call on the EU to allocate more funding to support environmental CSOs in the region next to large-scale economic investment to make sure that environmental organisations can play an active role in awareness raising, providing information-based advocacy and as a watchdog.

Vedad S.: We’re already seeing the bad effects of climate change in the Western Balkans. Our talks focused on how we can make our area stronger against these effects, such as improving our buildings or teaching our communities. We also talked about how taking care of our environment affects other things like farming, health, and schools.

Thank you for the interview, Valbona and Vedad!

Are you interested in upcoming events by the EUKI Academy or EUKI projects? Subscribe to our newsletter to get informed about any relevent updates on European climate action by following the link below.

News from EUKI