EU helps Balkans to reduce unemployment

16/07/2014

The European Union is supporting local efforts, funding institutional development and supporting at-risk workers in order to increase employment in the Balkans.

By Ivana Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 16/07/14

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The government and NGOs in Macedonia are using EU funds to support small and medium-sized businesses in order to provide more jobs in the country. [AFP]

The western Balkans is attempting to reduce its unemployment rate in co-operation with the European Union in an effort to improve the economy and improve regional countries' chances for EU accession.

With jobless rates as much as 44 percent in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and 45 percent in Kosovo, unemployment is one of the greatest challenges facing the western Balkans as countries attempt to solidify their relationships with the EU.

Such efforts are important in helping countries build strong economies, said Tibor Moldvai, head of the Belgrade-based Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies.

"The EU funds for the reduction of unemployment are enabling structural and systemic changes in the economy because they are not used for filing in holes in a budget or to increase public spending, firstly because there are strict procedures for these funds," Moldvai told SETimes.

"A special focus of these funds is given to employment of youth, women, ethnic and vulnerable groups, which would enable social aid to unemployed persons. EU funds for reducing unemployment are important because they discourage support to the Eurosceptic and right-wing parties which got a significant number of votes in the previous election for the European Parliament and which are strengthening in the periods of social and economic crisis and which could have negative influence to the EU future," Moldvai said.

In Serbia, the EU and the labour ministry are finishing a joint project to improve the capacity of labour market institutions with the aim to accelerate reforms in the sector. The project was funded by the EU and lasted 26 months.

The National Agency for Regional Development of Serbia is the co-ordinator of the European Network of Entrepreneurship in Serbia, which is one of EU mechanisms for unemployment rate reduction.

"This network is the biggest one in the world, which supports small and medium enterprises. All activities of the network have the same purpose -- to employ more people. In 2013, the network mediated for 460 enterprises, at 55 international business gatherings, and 34 Serbian companies signed contracts for business co-operation with international companies," Milos Ignjatovic, director of the National Agency for Regional Development, told SETimes.

He added that the network provides Serbian companies with information about conditions for entering the EU market, export opportunities, new technologies, potential partners, technical development and EU programs.

Since 2005, the EU has provided 5.8 million euros in assistance to the labour market and employment systems in BiH, as well as developing projects to help the development of small and medium enterprises, including agriculture.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) implemented a 2-million-euro programme to support development of 135 small and medium enterprises, referred to as SMEs.

"The results have been impressive, with 78 percent of the assisted companies reporting an increase in their revenues over the course of the project," Andy McGuffie, spokesman of the Delegation of EU in BiH, told SETimes. "Currently, the EU is providing 1.3 million euros in technical assistance for the development of feasibility studies and preliminary designs for investments in nine municipal business infrastructure projects. Over the past years, the EU provided more than 20 million euros in supporting the SMEs and tourism sector and helping to improve the business climate at the local level."

As announced in the last Enlargement Strategy, the European Commission will focus on better economic governance in all countries in the region. BiH should be one of the first countries to benefit from this new approach.

"The Commission will assist BiH to prepare a national economic reform programme. It will push forward reforms and actions to tackle the dysfunctional labour market, get better co-ordination on economic and fiscal policies and create a better environment for business. We believe that BiH policy-makers should focus on coherent and consistent economic and social reforms, promoting economic growth and development and a positive climate for business, and enhancing citizens' welfare. This in turn should improve living conditions for all BiH citizens," McGuffie said.

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The unemployment rate in BiH is more than 40 percent, according to recent statistics. [AFP]

Employment policies in Macedonia are conducted in accordance with the Employment Strategy of 2011-2015. Some of its segments have been implemented with EU funds.

Funds have been used for strengthening the capacity of the Employment Agency of Macedonia, as well as for supporting the national strategy for employment by introducing a methodology for predicting long-term labor market changes and encouraging social inclusion through strengthening the capacity of relevant institutions.

Marjan Gjuroski, spokesman for the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, told SETimes that the ministry will continue to implement actions to reduce unemployment, which will be directed toward support of active measures for employment of young people, people from socially vulnerable groups, women and the long-term unemployed.

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Some NGOs also use EU funds to create jobs. The Skopje-based NGO Women's Action leads a project to support unemployed women who are ethnic minorities.

"We and our partners have worked with unemployed women from ethnic communities. The aim was to stimulate opportunities for 300 women and included learning how to find a job, how to present themselves, mediation for jobs, providing vocational training courses. We did training for self-employment, how to make a business plan and how to go into institutions," Dragica Milosevska, president of the Women Action, told SETimes.

Correspondents Drazen Remikovic in Banja Luka and Miki Trajkovski in Skopje contributed to this report.

How important is it for Southeast European countries to seek EU assistance to stimulate job growth? Add your thoughts in the space below.

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