Op-ed by Florian Bieber, professor at the University of Graz and coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG). Bieber will be a speaker on the event “Beyond Berlin: What Does the Next Decade Hold for the Western Balkans?”, organized by Chatham House, European Fund for the Balkans and DG Near in London on 10 July.
When the Berlin Process was launched five years ago, it was supposed to trigger a new dynamic to regional cooperation and bringing the Western Balkans closer towards the EU. By circumventing formal institutional structures and bringing in all EU members, the process could avoid excessive duplication of existing structures, avoid navigating the bothersome difficulties individual member states brought to the table, like Spain’s intransigence towards Kosovo’s independence and Greece’s difficult relations with its northern neighbor Macedonia.
Much has changed since the initial meeting in Berlin. Cooperation has increased among the Western Balkan countries significantly and a number of projects and initiatives have been launched, and bilateral relations have improved, in particular between Macedonia and both Bulgaria and Greece. Nevertheless, the Berlin process is in shambles. However, this is not due to the Western Balkans, but the EU members that are participating.
Already France, when it took over hosting the summit two years ago, seemed more interested organizing the meeting in Paris for its own vanity than out of genuine interest or commitment towards the region. This was confirmed by the recent petty blockade over giving Macedonian and Albanian a concrete date to begin accession talks this year.
The London summit was agreed before Brexit, but it was a folly to pursue a summit in a country that sought to leave the EU and finds itself, predictably in the hot phase of negotiating its exit form the EU, while the summit seeks to stay on message that EU enlargement is realistic and desirable. Keeping the summit in the UK was not just to British insistence – an effort to define its post-Brexit role in the Balkans – it was also supported by Germany, showing how the German government has been using the Berlin process to curry favors far removed from the concerns of the Western Balkans.
The resignation of the summits host, Boris Johnson, during the summit itself shows what gamble keeping the summit in London was. Furthermore, the preparation of the summit was distracted by the government’s focus with Brexit, making it a side show, much to the detriment of the process.
Initially, the Berlin process would have concluded in London, but the follow Berlin+ initiative seeks another round of summits, beginning in Poland of all places. Apparently motivated by a strong interest from the countries of the Visegrad group to be involved, the choice could be no more off the mark.
Neither has Poland displayed any strategic interest in the Western Balkans, nor does it provide an encouraging backdrop for the rule of law in the Western Balkans. Just like Serbian foreign minister Ivica Dačić can deflect critical questions on the rule of law in Serbia by mentioning Poland, so can Macron and other enlargement skeptics mention Poland as to why they won’t support the membership of the Western Balkans.
Just as the Berlin Process has been hijacked by some member states, the EU policy towards the Balkans has been undermined by the shortsighted politicking of members. When the EU recognized last year that neglect breads crises, destructive external intervention and democratic backsliding in the Balkans last year, it reengaged.
Yet, what remains not sufficiently understood is that this downward spiral in parts of the Western Balkans has been due to a divided EU that sends contradictory messages and no longer offers a fair and realistic prospect of joining. Key member states have demonstrated in recent weeks, that this, unfortunately, as not changed.
Considering this pattern with EU member states hijacking the Berlin Process for their own agenda, while adding little to the process, one should doubt the usefulness of continuing. After all, the European Commission has absorbed many aspects of Berlin process in its February 2018 strategy.
Rather than keeping this process in the hands of a growing number of countries, it would be better to have an EU-Western Balkans process that includes all EU members and sends the signal that the Western Balkans will be in the EU soon and are consulted on EU matters. This would allow the Commission to take a more central role, bring in more consistency and follow up, while adding an instrument that can tackle issues the EU is institutionally less well equipped to face, such as bilateral issues and improving relations among the countries of the region and their neighbors.