On Thursday, the prime ministers of the six Western Balkan countries convened in Berlin to sign three important agreements—on mutual recognition of ID cards, university diplomas, and professional qualifications—as part of a revitalized “Berlin Process.” The signing is a meaningful step in rebuilding momentum for regional economic cooperation and integration, and it is a signal that European Union (EU) countries are once again focusing on the Balkans in the shadow of Russia’s ruinous invasion of Ukraine. That attention is paying dividends. And it couldn’t come at a more important time.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has promised to put the EU enlargement process back on track, vowing to make the Western Balkans’ future a foreign-policy priority for his government. “The stability and prosperity of your region cannot be detached from the stability and prosperity of Europe as a whole,” Scholz said at the summit.
Enlargement hit a roadblock in 2019, when France blocked opening negotiations for Albania and North Macedonia, with President Emmanuel Macron demanding reform of the enlargement process before considering new members. This occurred just after North Macedonia had settled its long-running name dispute with Greece, expecting to have these compromises unlock its EU path. As soon as new EU procedures were drawn up and adopted and Macron dropped his objections, Bulgaria blocked the opening of North Macedonia’s candidacy for arcane reasons related to language and history—only to relent this past May when France finally brokered a compromise. Thursday’s summit was a serious attempt to build on this breakthrough.
The EU enlargement agenda needs all the help it can get. Though there has been a lot written about how the EU is stepping up to the moment by granting Ukraine and Moldova candidate status in the shadow of Russia’s aggression, the reality is much less sunny. Many countries in the EU have long been committed to slow-rolling the process. And in private conversations with political and civil-society leaders across Europe this year, we have heard concerns voiced about how little has really changed. Indeed, there is a sense that with Ukraine and Moldova, the EU is making promises it has no ability to keep.
The Western Balkans countries’ unmet promise of EU membership was first extended at Thessaloniki in 2003. While it’s true that necessary democratic reforms, including on media freedoms and the rule of law, have stalled across the region, it’s also true that EU member states have shown a real political hesitancy on enlargement—and people on the ground in the Balkans can feel it. “They pretend that they want to let us in, and we pretend to reform,” is a frequent refrain from dispirited activists across the region. Many enlargement advocates across the EU fret that a similar mistake was made earlier this year in raising unrealistic hopes in Kyiv and Chișinău.
Berlin’s lead role
In this context, renewed German engagement in the Western Balkans is to be applauded and welcomed. Given that actual accession is still many years away even in the most optimistic scenarios, Scholz has focused his energies on reviving efforts at establishing a Common Regional Market (CRM) to implement the “four freedoms”—the freedom of movement for goods, capital, services, and people—across the region’s economies, firmly based on EU standards. Doing so will go a long way toward preparing the region for full membership, the thinking goes. It will also provide tangible benefits to the region’s citizens by creating a more attractive destination for Western capital, especially as global supply chains struggle to adapt to political imperatives for near- and friend-shoring. The agreements signed this week represent a meaningful step in re-establishing the initiative, which had foundered over disputes between Serbia and Kosovo at a Berlin Process summit in Sofia in 2020.
The Berlin Process was launched by then German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2014 at a time when hopes for enlargement had first started to fade. It has been criticized for talking big but delivering little. Early efforts at establishing the CRM yielded an agreement guaranteeing free cellular roaming across the region—and little else. Transformative infrastructure investments, an important plank of the initiative, failed to meaningfully materialize and suffered from delays in matching funds to projects.
But the Berlin Process’s annual summit schedule did generate a previously scarce commodity: a shared political consciousness and familiarity among the region’s leaders. When tensions and disputes halted progress on CRM in Sofia (with Kosovo refusing to sign agreements that allow Serbia to persist in not recognizing its statehood) three of the region’s six countries—Serbia, North Macedonia, and Albania—forged ahead on realizing the four freedoms among themselves.
In launching the Open Balkan initiative last year, the three have made progress in signing several agreements. Implementation of measures that would allow citizens the freedom to work in any of the three participating countries is currently held up in North Macedonia’s parliament. But expedited customs “green lanes” for the transportation of goods among the three have been opened, and tourism and cultural exchange has increased. The thaw between Serbia and Albania has been most pronounced, but relations between Serbia and North Macedonia have also markedly warmed.
A cottage industry sprung up among think tanks and civil society, with people arguing over whether Open Balkan represented a dangerous alternative to European-mediated efforts such as the Berlin Process, or whether it was a healthy sign that the region was maturing and taking initiative on its own. In their efforts to reboot the Berlin Process, the Germans have admirably steered clear of this ultimately academic debate. They have renewed their efforts at using the institutional weight of the EU to make progress with all six countries. If a subset of the countries gets ahead of the pack on their own initiative, all the better—as long as their integration efforts are fully in line with European standards.
Politics at the fore
In our conversations in Berlin this autumn, we were told that the big lesson learned from previous rounds has been the importance of political engagement, especially on the European side. No longer can progress on European integration be treated as a dry technocratic problem, a question of sequencing reforms in just the right way. Political commitment from the region’s leaders will be met, and tested, by reciprocal political goodwill at the highest levels on the European side. Getting things done will depend on both sides doing their part. The personal engagement by Scholz, both in the run-up and at the summit, is a testament to this new approach.
And that level of engagement will be necessary for tackling issues on the horizon. The coming winter’s privations will likely strain the impoverished region’s economies. EU leaders, aware of how poorly the Balkans were integrated into the continent’s COVID-19 response (and the residual bitterness that experience has engendered), are keen not to repeat the mistake. Immediate food and energy needs were discussed in Berlin this week, as were ambitious plans for financing the region’s transition to a more sustainable, greener energy mix.
The agreements signed this week are a long-overdue and important step in the right direction. Follow-through will be very important. The next Berlin Process summit will be held in Tirana, and the 2024 edition in Vienna. And progress will not just be measured in how well the region is integrating, but also on resolving outstanding disputes, especially between Serbia and Kosovo. “It is high time to overcome regional conflicts that have continued for far too long—conflicts that divide you and hold your countries back on your European path,” Scholz said on Thursday. Serbia’s reluctance to fully align itself with the EU’s common foreign policy on Russia is another bone of contention. Expect political pressure to pile on Belgrade even as Europe opens its coffers to help the region through a difficult time.
The most hopeful sign is that Europe seems to have embraced political engagement. The Berlin Process will succeed if it is used as a problem-solving and action-forcing tool in the region. The changes must be seen to be happening, not just felt after the fact. Visible summitry is an important component of success, but it alone is not a magic formula. Much work remains to be done.
Damir Marusic is a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center who works on the Council’s Balkans Forward Initiative.
Maja Piscevic is a nonresident senior fellow at the Europe Center and representative of the Council in the Western Balkans.
Jörn Fleck is the acting director of the Europe Center.
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