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The Berlin Process and why the EU remains a political dwarf in the Balkans

While the European Union is busy working out a long term strategy in the Western Balkans, other state actors are expanding their influence in the region.

August 12, 2019 - Ivan Pepic - Articles and Commentary

Western Balkans Summit 2019 in Poznań. Photo: Tymon Markowski, Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (cc) flickr.com

On the fourth and fifth of July 2019, the city of Poznań, Poland hosted the sixth Western Balkans Summit within the Berlin Process. The Berlin Process has affirmed itself as the most important link between the European Union and the Western Balkans countries (WB6). Since its inception, it has endeavored to solve vital challenges for the WB6: youth and employment, digitalisation, infrastructure building, women’s empowerment, education, connection and the regional free market.

For centuries, the Balkans have been reliant on foreign powers. Many empires have had control over the region — the Ottomans, Central Europeans and Russians have all ruled the Balkans’ regions and countries. A similar dependence on foreign influences is inherently present even today.

In contrast to their past tendencies, present-day influences interested in the region prefer to keep some distance from the Balkan’s internal political processes. This is particularly true for the EU. Why has the EU not shown concrete political solutions or preferences towards the WB6 in the past couple of decades? Instead, the EU insists on local ownership. However, is this approach beneficial if we consider politically difficult and unresolved questions?

It seems that the EU has three options. First, to continue with the nonsensical approach of withholding any political solutions to the crises. Second, accuse the WB6 leaders of unaccountability while maintaining the illusion of accession among the population through Poznań-like summits. And third, face reality and admit their mistakes while advancing concrete political solutions and new policies towards the WB6 that has the power to counteract non-EU actors.

Serious challenges: political backslides and lack of EU awards in the WB6

Notwithstanding the modest progress that has been achieved, the WB6 continues to face at least two serious challenges in its relations with the EU.

First, the EU ignores the political relations on the ground and political backslide in the WB6. Complex relations between and inside communities are destroying larger society and mutual trust. In this regard, the EU has demonstrated, again and again, that it is “an economic giant and a political dwarf” — as defined by the former Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mark Eyskens, in 1991. Even worse, political giants and serious economic players are present in the WB6 now more than ever.

Although the Berlin Process was not designed to be a purely political process, six years after its inception, it has not tried to address the burning issues that hinder all the Berlin Process’ efforts.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), a serious stalemate occurred after the Bosniak Muslims elected a Croat member of the tripartite presidency of BiH in 2018, for the third time after the war. Although constitutional provisions guarantee full equality for the three constituent peoples in the Bosniak-Croat Federation of BiH — Bosniak Muslims, Croats and Serbs — the most numerous constituent people, Bosniak-Muslims (70 per cent of the entity’s population), elect the representatives of Croats (22 per cent) for the state’s and entity’s executive and legislative institutions. While the EU pushes for the implementation of the ECHR’s Sejdić-Finci judgment, it completely ignores that Mostar has not had elections since 2008. The last elections were held after the decision of the Constitutional Court of BiH against the electoral rule imposed in 2004 by the High Representative Paddy Ashdown who also acted as the EUSR in BiH. The main EU institutions have been calling for a fast formation of executives at the state level and in the Federation of BiH while completely ignoring that the Election law provisions, necessary for the final formation of executives, were proclaimed unconstitutional in 2016. These unconstitutional provisions were imposed by the EUSR who at the time had executive (Bonn) powers at the same time as the EUSR and High Representative. Thus, the EU has to share accountability with BiH’s leaders.

Another example is the Serbia-Kosovo relationship. Rumors concerning some members of the Trump administration that pushed for a land swap between Kosovo and Serbia have become a reality. Merkel and other EU diplomats almost angrily opposed this idea, which was carefully and secretly considered by Belgrade and Pristina. But what is the EU’s counterproposal? Apart from periodical reports on progress and Berlin-Process-like discussions, no political solution has been advanced by the EU. The last attempt dates back to the 2013 Brussels Agreement, which was never implemented. Moreover, in April, Berlin encouraged talks between the two sides but without any concrete political proposal on the table.

The second challenge regards the rewards for WB6 progress, which remains under the EU’s radar. After decades, North Macedonia has agreed to compromise with Greece over the name dispute that was the reason for contention, which kept the former Yugoslav republic from beginning negotiations with the EU. Analysts and diplomatic circles know that the compromise was never planned or backed by the US. On the other hand, instead of rewarding Macedonians and their country, which accepted to remain blind over invalid referendum result, by opening negotiations, the EU ascribed the name dispute as their own victory and as a demonstration of good practice that should be considered by other regional leaders. Although the EU played a role, it is well known that without the US any compromise would be difficult to reach. Curiously, no EU leader has explained how a name dispute could be applicable to the BiH and Serbia-Kosovo conflicts since these cases are incomparable.

Again, the US — in this particular case the very experienced diplomat Matthew Nimetz — solved another challenge in the Balkans, while the EU remains a political dwarf.

Uncomfortable non-EU actors

Efforts undertaken by the EU are going to be in vain if it does not even try to put long-term political solutions on the table. All funds will never get to the ground, and tens of thousands will leave the WB6. On the other hand, actors such as China, Russia, Turkey or the Gulf countries will invest through their proxies, religious organizations and favorite political parties. In the long-term, this will destabilise the countries in the region.

For instance, in 2018, the International Republican Institute (IRI) polled BiH’s citizens who claimed that Turkey is their greatest ally (29 percent), followed by Russia (15), Germany (13) and the US (8). Similarly, Turkey’s influence has been evaluated as positive by 53 percent of the population, followed by Russia’s (45) and the US (39). Moreover, 38 percent of the Bosniak Muslim population think that Turkey is its single biggest donor, even though the EU invests in BiH ten times more than Turkey. Although Turkey is an important donor, it is also trying to become an infrastructural investor. Indeed, Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently promised a 3 billion euro investment for the Sarajevo-Belgrade highway.

Turkey is not only providing financial aid to BiH but it is exercising political influence too. Several times, Erdogan was hosted by Bosniak’s main political party — the Party of Democratic Action (SDA). Today, Erdogan’s AKP and SDA are cooperating more than ever. Moreover, Erdogan has often stated, and the Bakir Izetbegovic has confirmed that BiH has been consigned to him by Alija Izetbegovic on his deathbed. A similar process has happened to the entity Republika Srpska, whose main political leader, Milorad Dodik, has attracted Eastern autocrats, especially Putin. Dodik is now participating in the tripartite presidency of BiH.

A new EU policy for conflict resolution is needed

The EU has to decide which strategy to apply towards the WB6: a nonsense illusionary one or concrete political solutions. Political conflict resolution must become one of the top priorities for EU policies in the Balkans. If this does not happen, the EU will face more serious challenges from the presence of non-EU actors, and those actors are always ready to present illiberal or even anti-EU solutions for the political tensions between actors that represent their own nations in the WB6.

It is time for the EU to improve its standing in the region. The new commission should take its position in the Balkans seriously while taking into account the political weakness in all other neighboring regions, including Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus and the Mediterranean.

Ivan Pepic is Head of the Expert Team at The Institute for Social and Political Research in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. He holds a Master Degree in Political Science from the University of Zagreb and a Master Degree in European Studies from the University of Geneva. His research interests include comparative politics, theories of conflict resolution, political systems in divided societies and South-Eastern Europe.

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