The leaders of the Balkans and several important EU members, including Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, recently, “with difficulty”, held another session at the top of the Berlin Process, a diplomatic initiative by which the EU wants to encourage countries in the region to better prepare and join the European Union faster. We say “with difficulty” because the virtual meeting seemed like another obligation at work before leaving for the weekend, or the game of the last round, after which all the players go to another club. Enthusiasm was close to zero, no new messages, no new decisions and initiatives, as if everyone could hardly wait for the job to “go away”, for the Zoom platform to turn off so that everyone could go to another, more important job to make a living from.
This pallor was dictated by Angela Merkel, the “mother” of the Berlin Process, whose speech did not differ much from the address of any of the hundreds of European bureaucrats in charge of the Western Balkans at a second-class conference.
There was no heat on social networks either, because only its participants tweeted about the meeting, few Brussels officials and a couple of media from the Balkans and Brussels, probably because of their sense of duty, and not the objective importance of this event.
German Member of the European Parliament Viola von Cramon, whom we sharply (and justifiably) criticized at this same place a few months ago, because she is biased in her work as rapporteur for Kosovo, this time we must praise for accurate and fair assessments of the last Berlin Process summit: “Today’s meeting signifies yet another blow to the strengthening of relations between the EU and the states of the Western Balkans”.
The Berlin process was not a stillborn, it has been alive since 2014, but there has never been real energy in it, and especially efficient projects and money, so that it could become something more serious than what it is today. It originated as a German idea, and therefore had to be accepted in the EU, and especially in the Balkans. More precisely, the initiator was Angela Merkel, with the idea of amortizing the growing European phobias from enlargement, and especially the then projection of the head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, that there will be no EU enlargement in the next five years. And despite the fact that for seven years now, all those involved in the Berlin process and those who support it have been saying that it is not a substitute for the Balkans’ membership in the EU and a surrogate for real EU enlargement, it is precisely that. The Western Balkans is no closer to the EU today than it was at the beginning of July 2014, when the first conference on the Western Balkans and the EU was held. And if it is not closer in seven years, then it is not just stagnation, it is a real setback.
With the departure of Angela Merkel from the political scene after the September elections, the Berlin process will also retire, to the relief of all others who have participated in it so far. It will be on the shelf of expensive and failed European initiatives to enable the Balkans to move faster towards the EU, together with the Stability Pact, its successor, the Regional Cooperation Council, the South-East European Cooperation Process, if the names of those organizations mean anything to you. Perhaps behind the Berlin Process, as a legacy, will remain only the initiative for youth cooperation in the Balkans and its office in Tirana, as one of its rare tangible “products”. We don’t mind if you haven’t heard much about the activities of that office, neither did your author.
One should not complain much about the twilight and the probable departure from the scene of the Berlin Process. It has had a “twin brother” for two years, in character, goals and to some extent participants. It is still called “Mini-Schengen”, although in a few weeks it will get a more appropriate name at the Skopje meeting of Aleksandar Vučić, Edi Rama and Zoran Zaev, its initiators and godparents. Just like the Berlin Process, “Mini-Schengen” has the idea to create a common economic zone from the Western Balkans, open to all who make it, to raise the economic performance of the whole region, and thus each individually, to strengthen all other neighborly ties and in that way prepare for future EU membership.
Unlike its Berlin brother, “Mini-Schengen” is not even close to retirement, it is full of energy and enthusiasm and deserves to be given far more European attention than it has at the moment. Its basic quality, which makes a difference in relation to the Berliner, is that it came “from below”, as an authentic concept designed in the Balkans, and not in Brussels. Because it was initiated by Aleksandar Vučić, motivated by the needs and interests of his country, which was immediately recognized and accepted by the leaders of Albania and Northern Macedonia as a reflection of the interests of their own societies. It was not designed by the Balkan laboratory at the EU headquarters, which deals with the Balkans, mixing the ingredients from its 27 members, and only then the original needs of the Balkans.
Mini-Schengen, or whatever it will be called after the meeting in Skopje, is an invention of domestic wisdom, the first since the Balkans got the green light to join the EU, which was back in 2003. Its “founding fathers” do not need European mediation to agree, they do it easily and quickly, because they know best what their biggest common problems are, and they know especially well that they have a common European goal. Hence its essential difference in relation to all previous EU initiatives for the Balkans, and that gives it a crucial chance for success.
The European Union can help the Balkans the most if it sees the “Mini-Schengen” as the only efficient “vehicle” through which it can provide financial, project and development support for the fastest possible accession to the Union. It should not invent any new organization for better intra-Balkan connections, and thus strengthening ties with the EU. Let “Mini-Schengen” be its office for its Balkan affairs and projects. It will be incomparably more efficient than all previous ones, and it will not cost a single euro. Although, that may be a problem with “Mini-Schengen”, because you can’t put it in the bills of officials from Brussels.
Let this be a test of the credibility of Europe’s desire to accelerate the Balkans towards EU membership. Stand behind the “Mini-Schengen” with political support, pressure on all remaining Western Balkans to join it, support it with existing European money and projects and involve Vučić and his triplet in decision-making about the Balkans and get everything you have tried unsuccessfully for 20 years for free. Ending with the Berlin Process. Invest on this card, the people who hold it are your partners and they know what they are doing. You just need to suppress the vanity that everything started without the EU and that the copyrights are not in Brussels or Berlin, but in Belgrade. That is a small price to pay for the great success that is completely possible with “Mini-Schengen”, with or without you.