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The European Environment Agency cooperates with a large number of countries, including those in the Western Balkans. How does this cooperation further the EU’s work on the environment and how does it benefit Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Kosovo? We sat down with Luc Bas, head of Coordination, Networks and Strategy Programme, to discuss how the EEA is working with these countries to improve the environment.
Why are Western Balkan countries so important for the EEA? What is the added value of cooperating?
These countries are EU accession or pre-accession countries. In order to become a full EU member, a number of policies need to be put in place and the environmental field is one of the largest policy areas with a substantial package of legislation.
Moreover, the Western Balkans are our neighbors and we all know the environment doesn’t stop at the border, so close cooperation on environmental issues is also in the EU’s interest.
Lastly, as cooperating countries in the European Environmental Information and Observation Network (Eionet), the Western Balkans have access to a large pool of experts, helping them with the environmental challenges they face. In return, experts from these countries contribute to the network with their know-how.
What areas specifically, is cooperation so vital to the EEA’s work?
Our cooperation evolves largely around monitoring, reporting and assessment. The Western Balkan countries deliver data to the EEA on a regular basis in areas like air emissions or water quality, allowing us to process and assess the data. This data serves as the basis for informed decision making.
The region is facing a number of challenges, specifically around air, water and soil pollution which only can be addressed properly when sound and reliable data and information are available. The region is also specifically vulnerable in terms of climate change. There is also a lot of pristine nature that needs effective protection. By providing expertise and capacity building, the EEA aims to address the problems in this area as well.
How does this cooperation work in practice?
The Western Balkans are integrated in the work of Eionet in their capacity as “cooperating countries”. In practice, this means that we maintain a national Eionet network in the countries. These networks are managed by the National Focal Points (NFPs), appointed in the relevant institutions. We work closely with the NFPs, and they are invited to regular NFP/Eionet meetings where more strategic aspects of our work are discussed and decided. Additionally, the national network consists of National Reference Centers (NRCs), each covering a specific environmental theme.
The NRCs from all the member and cooperating countries convene regularly to discuss the more technical aspects of the cooperation in Eionet. In addition, we frequently identify a number of thematic areas where specific assistance is needed, together with the Western Balkans and other stakeholders, such as the European Commission. These issues are addressed in depth with the help of EEA experts, the European Topic Centers (ETCs) and other relevant partners in the network. The main areas that we address are typically support to air quality reporting, water quality issues, biodiversity, waste and climate related issues.
To give a concrete example, we have recently published country profiles on waste management in the Western Balkans countries, which we also produce for EU countries.
What are the key challenges in improving our cooperation to tackle environmental issues?
There are many environmental challenges that Europe shares across borders, like air and water pollution, and dealing with the impacts of climate change. In order to address these issues properly, adequate data and information are needed.
We have seen that in some countries the monitoring infrastructure is getting more outdated. This is specifically visible in air quality monitoring. While the Western Balkans are part of the European Air Quality Index, there are simply not enough monitoring stations in some areas. We try to address the issue with the help of other stakeholders in the region. There are also data gaps in other areas that need attention.
Cooperating with Western Balkan nations dates back 20 years. What has been achieved so far?
We have been working with these countries under different pre-accession financial instruments. Over the years, the Western Balkans have become an integrated part of the Eionet and all countries are delivering the required data on a regular basis to the EEA.
The EEA produces a yearly overview of the performance of its member and cooperating countries. The Western Balkans have shown clear progress over the years and are performing generally on par with EEA member countries with some of them fulfilling up to 100% of the requirements in terms of timeliness and quality of data. The Western Balkans have also become an integrated part of the EEA’s State of the Environment Report (SOER), which is produced every five years.
How does this cooperation fit into the EU’s European Green Deal? Do Western Balkan countries also look to meeting these goals?
The Western Balkans agreed to the “Green Agenda for the Western Balkans” which is to a large extent in line with the Green Deal and has been widely endorsed by the countries.
The EEA is currently preparing a project proposal under pre-accession (IPA III) funding. This proposal will be completely aligned with the Green Agenda and will address a large number of themes, such as decarbonization, circular economy, (de)pollution, sustainable food systems and biodiversity. With this proposal, the EEA aims to help the countries of the Western Balkans to reach the goals as set out in this “Green Agenda for the Western Balkans”
How do you see this cooperation evolving in the years ahead? Is full EEA membership an option?
Membership to the EEA is open to “third countries” as stipulated in its founding regulation. In fact, the EEA already has five member countries which are not part of the EU.
In this context we clearly see possibilities for EEA membership when the countries are technically ready. This is very much a political process in which the EEA has little influence, however, we are highly committed to maintain, and intensify, our relations over the coming years, as laid down in the “EEA-Eionet strategy 2021-2030”.