Berlin Process Summit in Tirana

BiEPAG Reacts #3


Florian Bieber

The Berlin process has revived last year by the new German government and there was some good news at the summit in Tirana. The commitment of Commission President van der Leyen to offer membership in the common market to the Western Balkans constitutes the first endorsement of the ideas circulating among think tanks for years to have more concrete interim steps towards full EU membership. However, was van der Leyen did not offer is a new process to join the EU or a clear time line. Not just Council President Charles Michel has been suggesting 2030 as a year when at least some of the Western Balkan 6 could join, but this clear time line was not mentioned in Tirana. As a result, the overall process is not offering to be more dynamic than it has been. Whether the entry to the common market and with it free movement of goods and services, transport, energy and the digital single market is enough remains to be seen.

A sign of potential trouble was Serbian Prime Minister Brnabic missing the group photo. It is unclear whether this was due to ‘timing’ or the presence of the Kosovo flag (nothing new), raising question about Serbian commitment to the process. While president Vucic has not been attending the Berlin Process summits since assuming office as president in 2016, his parallel visit to Beijing to the Belt-and-Road summit signaled where his priorities lie. The violence in Northern Kosovo seems to have finally buried Vučić’s pet project and alternative to the Berlin Process, Open Balkan. Already in the summer Albanian PM Rama basically withdrew his support. Similarly voices in the Macedonian government signaled support for withdrawing from the initiative in light of the violent clashes in Banjska. The messaging from Belgrade suggests that Vučić is not ready to fully support the Berlin Process.


Jovana Marovic

The Summit in Tirana brought a few concrete steps to improve regional cooperation and the continuation of the promise recently announced by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in the direction of the gradual integration of the Western Balkans into the Single European Market. The Common Regional Market remains in the focus of the Berlin process as a new agreement on mutual recognition of professional qualifications for nurses, veterinary surgeons, pharmacists and midwives was signed. However, three previous agreements signed a year ago have not yet entered into force due to slow ratification process in some countries of the Western Balkans. Although the reduction of roaming prices between the region and the EU, which have been applied since October 1, was welcomed, as a citizen of Montenegro I have not yet felt these benefits. This only speak of problems in the implementation of what was agreed, both when it comes to this and other issues, and that after nine years, the Berlin Process for such a long period still has limited results. Repeating that the countries of the Western Balkans should be included in meetings and fora with the EU where common interests are discussed is encouraging, but the rule of law and democracy are still mentioned only in passing without a concrete plan of how their improvement will be achieved if the economy remains the primary area of integration within the Berlin process. In addition, it is still an open question what to do about EU membership and whether the current EU conditionality remains primary or gradual integration becomes the most important framework for integration. Not mentioning road maps or any dynamics is also discouraging. Finally, it is good that the summit is “moving” next year to Berlin (although everyone appreciates the fact that the region was the host this year), but from that place and taking into account the importance that Germany has in the EU and in the enlargement itself, it should offer something more concrete and tangible for the perspective of the Western Balkans membership in the EU, and especially in the form of benefits for our citizens.


Richard Grieveson

Furthering the economic integration of the Western Balkans region is important, and any initiatives in this direction are positive, as long as all six countries are involved and as long as the integration brings the region closer to the EU single market. There is plenty of economic evidence that reducing barriers to trade and investment between the countries of the Western Balkans would increase regional GDP. Non-tariff barriers to trade are a hinderance to economic development in the Western Balkans. However, the six economies are small, particularly in relation to the EU, and therefore the gains from regional integration initiatives alone are unlikely to be a game-changer, even if a fully-fledged common regional market is achieved.

The Western Balkan economies have grown more slowly than most EU-CEE countries over the past couple of decades, despite having a lower starting point and therefore theoretically more catch-up potential. While incomplete regional economic integration is part of that, it is not the main reason. The main reasons for the disappointing economic performance of the Western Balkans are the lack of a true EU accession perspective, the lack of concrete positive economic spillovers associated with EU membership (such as full access to the EU budget and the ability to attract more high-quality FDI), and weak or even stalled reform momentum in many countries. The latter issue can also be tied concretely to stalled accession process; many of the 2004-13 EU joiners achieved their most decisive reforms in the years leading up to accession, thanks to the EU anchor and the incentives of a genuine accession perspective.

Therefore, while it is positive that the EU is pushing for greater economic integration within the region, it will have a much bigger impact by taking concrete measures to bring the Western Balkans as close as possible to the EU in economic terms. Collectively, Western Balkan GDP is roughly equal to that of Slovakia, or around 1% of that of the EU. Therefore, more access to the EU budget, greater integration into the EU single market, and a credible accession perspective (bringing an associated rise in FDI inflows and a much greater chance of positive reforms) would all have a much bigger economic benefit for the region. We should also remember that in the Visegrad countries, the true deepening of regional integration happened after EU accession, not before, and was driven by the huge positive economic shock that EU accession brings.

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