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EU looks to mobilise €20 billion for Western Balkans

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European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Policy Oliver Varhelyi in Brussels on Oct. 6, 2020.
European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Policy Oliver Varhelyi in Brussels on Oct. 6, 2020.   -   Copyright  Olivier Hoslet, Pool Photo via AP
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The European Union's enlargement commissioner said Wednesday that the bloc is seeking to secure another €20 billion of investment to help the Western Balkans catch up economically with the rest of Europe.

While in Skopje on the first leg of his Balkan tour, Oliver Varhelyi said the funds the EU plans to raise with its international financial partners would help the region recover from the financial fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The EU has already approved a €9 billion package from its budget for the Western Balkans, which include North Macedonia.

Varhelyi said countries in the region must improve their basic digital infrastructure, and make their energy systems more reliable and greener.

He said one initial move would be to phase out coal from regional power production.

"This could be a game-changer and only by replacing coal with gas, the emissions would be reduced by 60%," Varhelyi said.

The commissioner also urged North Macedonia's government to step up its reform drive — a crucial precondition for the country's stated aim of eventually joining the EU. The bloc wants to see further progress on issues relating to the rule of law, corruption and reforming the judiciary.

"We need to see quick and effective work on the ground," Varhelyi said. "We need results."

North Macedonia and neighbouring Albania received the green light this year to start accession talks with the 27-nation bloc.

Varhelyi said the first inter-government conferences with both countries, which would officially mark the beginning of the membership talks, could be convened by the end of this year.