Germany's attempt to revive the 'Berlin Process' has reopened a debate over whether the 'Open Balkans' parallel initiative is an obstacle or aid to EU integration.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stated in early May that Germany intends to resume the so-called Berlin Process, launched in 2014 to advance regional integration and the rapprochement of the six Western Balkan countries with the EU.

"Germany has been engaged in the Berlin Process for several years and we want to bring it back to the second half of the year." Germany has been engaged in the Berlin Process for several years and we want to revive it in the second half of the year, "he said. Scholz on May 4th.

He added that, based on conversations with his predecessor Angela Merkel, "the Berlin process is highly valued and the Western Balkans] participate willingly."

This process is mainly known for agreements on freedom of movement and the creation of a common regional market in preparation for EU membership.

Won praise for the effort to bring the countries of the Western Balkans closer to each other.

However, differences in goals in the region and the best way to achieve them remain high.

In 2019, three Western Balkan countries, Albania, Northern Macedonia, and Serbia, launched another initiative, the Open Balkans, which also aims to create a common regional market.

Although often considered a parallel process to the Berlin Process because of similar goals - the creation of a common regional market and freedom of movement - some experts say parallel initiatives such as the Open Balkans do not, in fact, help regional co-operation.

Manuel Sarrazin, Germany's special envoy for the Western Balkans, told BIRN's Kallxo Përnime show that the Berlin Process "is the best example to show that the Open Balkans is an initiative, with perhaps positive intentions, but not so much required".

Describing the Berlin Process as an "exclusive" process, Sarrazini explained that only a full-fledged EU membership works, and should be done through comprehensive processes where all six (states) express a desire to participate, have the opportunity to participate and where we do not create parallel structures that match the clear path to the EU ”.

Creating a common regional market before EU membership

Scholz announced Germany's intentions at two separate press conferences, following two separate bilateral meetings, first with Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti and then with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.

"In the future, all countries (of the Western Balkans) should belong to the European Union," said Scholz, promising a trip to the region in the second half of the year to personally invite the states.

"The most important current project of the Western Balkan countries within the Berlin process is the creation of a common regional market," Scholz said on May 4.

"Here I hope that four important agreements will be reached for the free movement of people and the recognition of diplomas and professional qualifications," he said.

As part of the Berlin Process, the Western Balkan countries signed an agreement in Sofia in 2020 on the creation of the so-called Common Regional Market, which includes four freedoms of movement: people, goods, capital and services.

In cooperation with the European Commission, the Berlin Process also resulted in the creation of the Regional Economic Zone as the first step towards regional economic cooperation.

However, despite the "willing participation" of the Western Balkan countries in the Berlin Process, Germany does not agree on the Kosovo issue with Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Germany's relations with Serbia have improved over the years but Berlin and Belgrade still have opposing views on a crucial issue - the recognition of Kosovo as an independent state from Serbia.

Berlin supports and recognizes Kosovo's independence and has strongly opposed the once-discussed plans to change the borders between Kosovo and Serbia on ethnic grounds as a step towards mutual reconciliation.

Experts told BIRN that the Berlin Process should also be included in political issues in the region.

Engjëllushë Morina, senior policy expert at the Wider Europe program at the Berlin-based European Council on Foreign Relations, told BIRN that “it is necessary for the Berlin process to open as soon as possible and to it is politicized… (because) it not only remains a technical process that deals with infrastructure and similar projects, but also addresses political issues that burden the region ”.

Morina added that the Berlin Process should be chaired by Scholz and the President of France, Emanuel Macron, and also deal with high-level political issues, such as the Bulgaria-Macedonia dispute in the North;

non-recognition of Kosovo's independence by the five EU member states;

as well as the blocking of Kosovo by Serbia in regional initiatives and vice versa, among others.

She stressed that the Berlin Process should not be seen as a "replacement for the EU enlargement process" but as an "additional process that helps the Balkan countries to move closer to the EU as soon as possible".


for action and not for empty phrases or useless

group photos

On the same evening that Scholz announced the reopening of the Berlin Process, Kurti and Vucic had an informal dinner with the EU envoy for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, Miroslav Lajcak.

Their meeting, and Sholz's proclamation, came at a very sensitive time for Kosovo and Serbia.

Less than two weeks earlier, on April 22, the chief negotiators of Kosovo and Serbia had failed to reach an agreement on license plates that sparked protests on Kosovo's border with Serbia in Jarinje and Brnjak last year.

"Unfortunately, there is zero readiness on the Serbian side (for an agreement)," said Kosovo's chief negotiator, Deputy Prime Minister Besnik Bislimi, when he announced that an agreement had not been reached.

Negotiations also failed on 13 May.

Bislim had a meeting with Lajcak and the chief negotiator of Serbia, Petar Petkovic, in Brussels, where they discussed the issue of license plates and energy, but without success.

Scholz urged Kosovo and Serbia to be more constructive, calling the EU-mediated dialogue "crucial to peace and stability in Southeast Europe and also to the two countries' European integration."

Both countries seem ready to accept Germany's invitation to join the Berlin Process, despite their continuing differences.

Adnan Cerimagic, a senior analyst at the Berlin-based European Stability Initiative, told BIRN that for the Berlin Process to have a positive impact it should facilitate a “change in EU policies towards the region;

"which offer more than pictures of leaders and empty phrases about a bright but distant future in the EU."

"Only regular meetings with regional leaders and empty phrases will not stop the negative trends in the region or create the necessary positive changes.

"Only new EU policies with concrete, tangible, achievable, and transformative goals can do that."

Cerimagic describes the current situation in the Western Balkans as quite fragile, noting the media's constant alarm about "possible new conflicts".

"Politicians in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina have openly speculated in recent months whether there will be a new outbreak of violence," he noted.

According to Cerimagic, "the EU's ability to influence positive change, from Montenegro to Serbia, has never been weaker.

"As is its ability to reward reforms, from Northern Macedonia and Kosovo to Albania."

Another difference in the region is the creation of parallel initiatives aimed at common markets and freedom of movement, such as the Open Balkans.

"The Berlin process is sufficient for regional cooperation and I do not believe that there is a need for parallel processes like the Open Balkans, a process that consists of three countries, Albania, Northern Macedonia, and Serbia," Morina said.

Political scientist from Albania, Afrim Krasniqi says that the "Open Balkans" is challenged by "influences of other powers in the Western Balkans".

He warns: "The (perceived) need for stability has shifted (also) the need for a functioning democracy, having the opposite effect, increasing the authoritarian nature of regimes in the region, as well as high levels of corruption."

Albania and Kosovo in dispute over the Open Balkans

Despite the fact that Albania and Kosovo agreed in July 2019 on a common foreign policy, when it comes to Serbia and the Common Balkan Initiative, the approximation of these foreign policies seems distant.

Behgjet Pacolli, who was Kosovo's foreign minister at the time, together with Albania's then-counterpart Gent Cakaj, had signed an agreement on closer foreign policy coordination, the establishment of joint diplomatic missions and the division of diplomatic staff. and experience in implementing national interests.

However, a month earlier, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, in a meeting in Novi Sad, Serbia, agreed with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and then-Prime Minister of Northern Macedonia Zoran Zaev to launch the Open Balkans initiative. ”, In order to eliminate border controls and other obstacles to free movement.

Since then, the three countries have worked to push the agenda further and persuade other Western Balkan states to join the initiative.

However, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo have not done so.

"Albania's inability to benefit from the projects of the Berlin Process në led to the creation of the Open Balkans", insists Krasniqi.

The initiative is not just a "parallel project" to the Berlin Process, he added, but has divided the country and, instead of bringing the Western Balkan countries closer to the EU, remains "more like a Balkan project".

Albania does not agree.

"Albania is not only part of the Berlin Process, but, as the Prime Minister and the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs have said several times, the Open Balkans does not intend to replace the Berlin Process," the Albanian Foreign Ministry told BIRN. via email.

According to the ministry, "The 'Open Balkans' is the implementation of the four principles of freedom of movement in Europe, which underlie the Berlin Process" and adds that "with the slowdown of the Berlin Process in recent years, the 'Open Balkans' has enable some important initiatives ”.

Sarrazini, Germany's envoy to the region, said Germany was "clearly committed to the Berlin process, but I would read the Open Balkans as a wish for the Berlin Process to be more successful and perhaps a boost for us." to realize it ”.

Moreover, Sarrazini has a "clear sense" that Serbia will participate in the Berlin Process, especially because, as he says, "Serbia is fortunate to have a clear commitment to the Berlin Process from the German chancellor and the whole German government. "

The Serbian government did not respond to BIRN's questions regarding the Berlin Process and the Open Balkans until the publication of this article.

Jeton Zulfaj, political advisor to Prime Minister Kurti, said that "For Kosovo, the Open Balkans is a distraction from our agenda for EU integration and the doubling of the Common Regional Market."

Zulfaj added that, "being outside EU rules and without democratic oversight, the Open Balkans… does not aim at a free market between democracies, but to expand the market to autocratic countries like China and Russia… which are already present In Serbia".

Zulfaj said Serbia's refusal to impose sanctions on Russia over its occupation of Ukraine, as well as its economic agreements and good relations with Russia and China, proved that Kosovo could not benefit from the Open Balkans.

Kosovo, he concluded, "is an equal party with equal rights and benefits for its citizens" in the Berlin Process - but that would not be the case in the Open Balkans.

/ BIRN /