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The Berlin process and the West Balkans

Interview with Luisa Chiodi and Gentiola Madhi, two researchers studying the Berlin process. Interviewer: Mario Giagnorio

April 30, 2019 - Gentiola Madhi Luisa Chiodi Mario Giagnorio - Interviews

A famous landmark in Mostar, Bosnia Herzegovina, one of the participants of the Berlin Process Photo: Maxim Bonte (cc) flickr.com

MARIO GIAGNORIO: The diplomatic initiative aimed to support EU enlargement in the Balkans, known as the “Berlin process”, started in 2014 and continued as a series of annual meetings. What has this process achieved so far? What has changed since the Berlin Summit in 2014?

LUISA CHIODI and GENTIOLA MADHI: The Berlin process (BP) succeeded in bringing back attention to the region in times of multiple crises in the EU and after years of so-called enlargement fatigue. The achievements of the process are mostly of a political nature: to start with the proactivity of major EU member states pushed the Juncker Commission to engage more consistently with the region. Second, the BP improved communication at the diplomatic level between West Balkans (WB) leaders, as for instance with the dialogue between Albania and Serbia. Moreover, the WB leaders signed the declaration on the resolution of bilateral disputes, avoided the mutual blocking of the European path, solved three bilateral disputes (the Kosovo-Montenegro border demarcation; Macedonia’s name issue; and the Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) – Montenegro border agreement) and now a positive rapprochement is taking place between Bulgaria and North Macedonia.

What is the main goal of this process? What strategies have been adopted to achieve it?

The BP was launched as a four-year framework under German leadership, with the clear focus on physical connectivity and economic growth and with the ultimate aim to relaunch the EU integration process that was at a dangerous stalemate. The process blended together different running initiatives and available funds and streamlined them, ensuring better coordination and coherence among different interventions.

In addition, the BP launched a connectivity agenda to improve standards in the field of transport and energy, economic growth, higher competitiveness and trade exchanges, and new employment opportunities, in view of the region’s integration into the EU space. The agenda seeks to enhance competitive advantages and provide tangible results for the local populations. 20 connectivity projects have been approved so far, out of which four have commenced work on the ground. In the next few years, these projects might have significant spillover effects also in other policy areas, like procurement procedures, where the national authorities must comply with the donor’s rules and regulations. As for people-to-people connectivity, the BP launched the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO), the first regionally-owned organisation aiming to fight prejudices and bring together WB youth.

However, over the years the process suffered from an overexpansion of policy areas while the level of EU committed resources did not change (one billion euros for the period 2015-2020). As has already emerged from past experience, WB governments show slow reactivity and preferences for surface-restyling rather than in-depth reforms. Indeed these countries still cope with limited national administrative capacities, but what is worse is that they coupled this with persistent illiberal tendencies.

Why are the Balkans important to the EU?

Nowadays the importance of the Balkans for the EU is seen primarily in security and stability terms. There is a dominance of geopolitical considerations over the region, as other key players like China, Russia, Turkey and the Gulf countries show a growing interest in what is often described as the Union’s traditional backyard. Moreover, even if the EU presents itself as a normative power, nowadays it tends to act according to concrete medium- and short-term interests, such as the managing of the migrant crisis on the Balkan route, the fighting of transnational organised crime and terrorism, etc.

However, the Balkans are geographically, historically, culturally and politically part of Europe, and there exists a mutual interdependence. What is more, the Union represents a fundamental opportunity for overcoming the consequences of post-communism and the wars in the 1990s and starting a sound reconciliation process in the region.

But even in pure geopolitical terms, financial and trading relations, geographical position and political ties already make the Western Balkans a de facto part of the EU. Yet one of the fundamental problems is that for now their GDP is one-fourth of most advanced Western European countries (EBRD 2018). Full convergence could take decades, and the best scenario estimates that it will take 40 years to catch up to EU living standards. Currently industries are unable to withstand competition; foreign debt is growing; and unemployment remains high, with almost half of those under the age of 30 out of work. Instead, a bloated administration and service sector is emerging, with a low intensity of value creation. Investment is also inadequate, especially in education, research and development. The region’s external debt and all its consequences ultimately stem from the trade deficit. This deep imbalance needs to be addressed by consistently investing in convergence if we really want to ensure regional stability.

What role does civic society, and youth in particular, play in the dialogue among the Balkans states, and between the EU and the Balkans?

The Balkan civil societies may play a crucial role in the democratisation of the region. The recent protests in WB countries demonstrate the people’s ambition and willingness to fight against structural problems such as corruption, nepotism, abuse of power, and human rights violations.

On its side, the Commission regularly stresses the importance of creating an enabling framework for civil society in each country, along with their participation in the policy-making processes. Moreover, it has revisited to a certain extent its approach to membership-seeking countries and direct consultation mechanisms have been put into place between the Commission and local civil society actors. The bottom-up emergence of Civil Society Forum within the BP shows the will of these actors to engage in region-wide discussions and produce joint advocacy tools to the national/regional authorities on various policy areas.

However, the actual relationship between Brussels and Balkan social movements and bottom-up initiatives is complex. People feel that they are not backed up while confronting the misuse of power in their country and this fuels frustration. Euroscepticism in the region differs from the one we are experiencing in EU member states: it is often the reaction of a jilted lover. Civil society organisations in many cases consider the EU as an overwhelmingly important actor, and when they criticise the EU, they refer to its absence, not to its presence.

But what make things difficult is that beyond urban elites, there are wide sections of the population, especially in the countryside, that are marginalised. The rural-urban divide in the region is still very deep. Here the BP and the EU are not even in sight.  

According to the 2018 Eurobarometer, enlargement is supported by a minority of EU citizens, about 44 per cent. Has this attitude affected the process so far?

The attitude of European citizens has an impact on political elites that justify their caution with popular hostility towards new enlargement. This has been the case for instance in 2018 when the Council decided to postpone the opening of negotiation with North Macedonia and Albania. The Commission had advocated in favour of the two countries but few member states pulled the brake.

Therefore, the popular support of member states is central for enlargement, but it has been long neglected. The last time the EU invested in public information campaigns on the enlargement process was 2011. Based on the Brexit experience, information is key, so the EU should change its current approach.

At the moment the WB are involved in a few funding programmes such as Horizon 2020, the Europe for citizens programme, the Right, Equality and Citizenship Programme (REC) . Additional opportunities should be created so as to build multiple bridges between WB and EU civil societies and professional categories. Human connectivity can be simultaneously encouraged both at the regional and European levels as a mutually reinforcing process.

We are now nearing elections to the European Parliament. Do you think changes within EU institutions will have an effect on the process?

I still hope that the EU will not be deeply affected by the result of the coming elections but the problem for the WB is deeper anyway: there are many political actors belonging to the whole political spectrum that show hostility towards new enlargements.

The fact that the Commission decided to postpone the publication of the WB country reports from April to 29 May in order not to influence the voting process is not a good sign. Similarly, the exclusion of the Western Balkans from the Sibiu Summit (which will take place in May 2019 and was arranged by the Romanian EU presidency) confirms once again that the hour for building momentum in this region has already passed.

Is the Balkan region at risk of being a victim of the problems that are now affecting the EU?

For sure the weakening of the European project does not help the Balkans. The rising debate among the populist, radical and extremist political parties on threats deriving from migration and organised crime in the Balkans contributes to the alienation of the region and certainly does not help to improve its image in the eyes of EU citizens. This undermines their future EU perspective as well as the achievements that the EU has built so far in the region.

On the other hand, the increased debate around a multi-speed EU paradoxically can help the enlargement process in the short run. The six WB countries have a long way to go before they can be integrated and in the meantime they could be involved in more programmes, policy areas, agreements, etc.

The widespread opposition towards the new enlargements is associated with the member states’ failures to implement certain EU policies, such as the relocation of asylum seekers in 2016. If agreements reached via qualified majority voting are ruled out, then only enhanced cooperation, coalitions of the willings and the like can be used to take the EU out of its crisis. In this context the WB countries might be able to join single policies, to establish agreements and to get out of the ghetto in which they are confined. 

On the other hand, South Eastern European member states such as Romania and Bulgaria already lament their condition as second-class members and a multi-speed EU will worsen their situation, risking the creation of a ring of non compliant states, something that in turn might continue to weaken the Union.

The so-called migration crisis has had a very large effect on the EU. It also had a strong Balkan component with the “Balkan route”. What do you think will happen in regards to this in the near future?

On the one hand, the crisis in the Middle East as well as the migration flow along the Balkan route changed the lenses through which the EU looks at the Balkans and contributed to their return to the stage of EU foreign policy for security reasons.

On the other hand, what is worrisome is the outsourcing of the management of migration that condemns fragile countries such as BiH to the role of border fence. The current situation on the Croatian-Bosnian border needs to be urgently tackled: here the Croatian authorities illegally and brutally push back to BiH thousands of the people, denying them the right to seek international protection. But BiH cannot possibly deal with this dramatic situation alone. It is clearly irresponsible but also stupid on the side of the EU as a whole to leave the burden on the most precarious country among the post-war Balkans.

Gentiola Madhi has graduated from the College of Europe (Bruges), University of Florence and European College of Parma in International Relations and European Studies. She works as policy researcher, with a particular focus on regional cooperation and Europeanisation of the Western Balkan countries. Since 2015, she has been engaged in monitoring and advocacy activities within the Berlin Process framework.  

Luisa Chiodi has a PhD from the European University Institute of Fiesole (Florence), a degree in Political Science at the University of Milan and is the director of Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso since 2006. She has lectured at universities both in Italy and abroad. Her research interests focus on civil society and the transnational social dynamics of post-communism.

Mario Giagnorio is an Italian MA student at the Centre for European Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and an editorial intern with New Eastern Europe.

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