Social cohesion in the Western Balkan1 economies is under constant threat. A weak social welfare state and the perilous economic situation over many years create an unstable environment that could jeopardize the sustainable development of Western Balkan societies. If safeguarding the minimum, basic standard is adopted as the central feature of the welfare state, it is almost impossible to assess whether Western Balkan countries nowadays have a welfare state at all, or whether they are attempting to build or reform it, or whether they had and lost it in an attempt at reform. There is a need to initiate a broad, evidence-based debate and dialogue on the future of the welfare state in the region.
Most challenges facing the mature welfare states are also present in the Western Balkans, such as demographic changes, and in particular population ageing, globalization, family transformation and changes in the labour market. Notable new challenges include inequality, especially global inequality among individuals, and migration, including refugees. The European Commission has been continuously stressing that “all enlargement countries face major structural economic and social challenges, with low efficiency of public administrations and high unemployment rates”.
The allocations for the social sector in the Western Balkans are below those in the EU (28) in both relative and, especially, absolute terms. Western Balkan economies (WB6) are already spending up to 25% of their GDP on social protection (in the EU 29%). A part of the social sector budget is “trapped” for political reasons and its structure is largely path dependent. Limited resources are available for significant challenges and reforms, which raises the question of effective and efficient spending of the resources to underpin smart, sustainable and inclusive growth in the region.
No national or regional issue can possibly be solved in isolation. No institution, organization or state can solve these issues on its own. Issues cannot be solved in isolated silos, or within the frame of one sector or agenda alone. Challenges need to be responded to at various levels, in an integrated way, and addressed in a global perspective, while paying attention to regional, national and local specificities.
Collaborative efforts and dialogue are needed on the strategic challenges and options for the welfare state. A group of Western Balkan think-tank organizations and researchers working on social policy issues have developed a Regional Platform to raise understanding among the research, advocacy, activist and policy-maker communities in the Western Balkans on the key issues of social policy and the future of the welfare state. The aim is to engage leading researchers and opinion makers from the political, business and civil society arenas to help shape a regional social welfare state agenda, thus contributing to improving the social dimension of European integration of the region.
We need to bring social policy challenges to the fore of development and enlargement policies. One of the key initiatives is the holding of an annual event to discuss the Future of the Welfare State in the Western Balkans. The initiative intends to create added value through influencing existing processes which promote a sustainable reform agenda in the Western Balkans. This event is being organized after the EU-Western Balkans summit, to be held on May 17, 2018 in Sofia, and will bring social cohesion and social policy challenges to the centre of attention.
The conference promotes dialogue as a tool for discussion, collaboration and influence. Through presentations, discussion, Q&A and participant polls, clear suggestions for ways forward should emerge, as a basis for a renewed social contract across the region.
Also, the Conference will prioritize two initiatives of the Network which have a more systematic character:
- An Initiative for Improved Governance of Social Sectors in the Western Balkans (GovSocSec_WB)
- An Initiative for Future-Oriented Welfare State Policies (FutureWS_WB)
Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Kosovo*, Montenegro, Serbia
* This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSCR 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.