One of the defining features of the Berlin Process is its informality. No formal institutional components have been set up. The sequence of summits for the participating governments and the organisation of several parallel fora for other participants (business and civil society organisations) have been accomplished without any standing intergovernmental structures or separate budgetary allocation, neither for operational implementation of activities nor for projects agreed upon by the participants. It was not intended as – and has not in any way become – a substitute or competitor for the mechanism and operational method of EU enlargement.
The Berlin Process: a pragmatic diplomatic initiative and response
The initiative referred to as the “Berlin Process” was conceived as a multiparty discourse on the forms and fields of cooperation among the six Western Balkans (WB6) countries with the commitment of Germany as initiator and with the participation of a select group of EU Member States, and was launched in 2014 in Berlin (thereby named after its birthplace) and has been highlighted by its annual meetings thereafter in Vienna (2015), Paris (2016), Trieste (2017), London (2018) and Poznan (2019). Far from being a comprehensive formation for all interested parties from the Union, the Berlin Process does not include other EU Member states with as keen an interest and track record of engagement in the Western Balkans as its immediate neighbours: Greece, Hungary or Romania.
In a time of limited interest and lost momentum in further EU enlargement, the Berlin Process emerged in 2014 as a political format for discourse and engagement with Western Balkans states without replacing EU membership talks or directly affecting the prospects of their opening. The Process could pave the way to sectoral collaboration among WB6 countries with EU political and financial assistance outside or beyond the EU accession process. It encouraged a sort of regional integration, but it did not imply that it should take place as part of the expansion of the Union or that it could result in the inclusion of any WB6 candidate into the EU through its participation in any dimension of the Berlin Process.
From its national perspective, Germany initiated the pragmatic collaborative exercise with its EU and WB6 partners with a view to improving the conditions and business climate for German investment and trade in the region in spite of the stalled process of EU enlargement. Conversely, increased German investment and presence in the economic and foreign trade relations of the Western Balkans countries would enhance the leverage – means of influence – of German foreign policy towards those states. Naturally, the same applies to all other EU members as well: the opportunities and benefits of a stable investment landscape with a legal environment that is increasingly harmonised (with the norms and standards of the European Union) could offer a more reassuring and attractive destination for every potential external investor from EU members with the consequence of a growing foreign policy interest and influence of those countries in the Western Balkans.
By the time of the launch of the Berlin Process, the summits between China and 16 Central, Eastern and South Eastern European (CESEE) countries – which began in 2012 – had become an annual practice revealing in broad daylight the Chinese thrust of economic and political penetration into the EU through the forging of multiple forms of economic ties with Member States on its eastern flank as well as with candidates and aspirants from the Western Balkans. The increasingly vigorous Chinese advancement in the region, with its expanding scope and strategic aims, certainly did not escape the attention of German decision- and policy-makers.
As a sign of strategic awakening, the Berlin Process was designed to introduce a discernible European form of collaborative engagement to regain some form of political initiative in the immediate EU neighbourhood in South Eastern Europe. In addition to its indicative political purpose, the Berlin Process offered the advantages of pragmatic cooperation with its focus on constructive political goals (such as continuation of modernisation and social reform programmes, reconciliation, and good neighbourly relations) and tangible economic goals (primarily, improved transport and energy connections) of predictable and undisputable benefit to the WB6 states, both individually and collectively.
The Berlin Process as an informal and complementary avenue for coordination beside EU enlargement
One of the defining features of the Berlin Process is its informality. No formal institutional components have been set up. The sequence of summits for the participating governments and the organisation of several parallel fora for other participants (business and civil society organisations) have been accomplished without any standing intergovernmental structures (such as a secretariat) or separate budgetary allocation, neither for operational implementation of activities nor for projects agreed upon by the participants. It has remained an avenue and platform for multilateral and multilevel discourse and collaboration.
The Berlin Process may be most accurately profiled and understood as a supplementary political framework to the accession aspirations or process of Western Balkans states. It was not intended as – and has not in any way become – a substitute or competitor for the mechanism and operational method of EU enlargement.
EU enlargement has always been determined by its specific nature: bilateral discourse between one candidate country and the cluster of other countries represented by the executive organ of their complex multilateral structure. The entire group of EU Member States conduct their negotiations with the aspirant country through their agent – the European Commission – on the basis of the agenda and assessment of the methodical implementation of all the expected technical, legal, institutional, policy and political adaptations before the possible accession to the legal framework that is open only at the invitation and unanimous approval of all parties to the treaties. The formal system of accession talks and evaluation chapter-by-chapter cannot be supplanted by any other procedure or mode of negotiations.
Separately, but not unrelated to it, the Berlin Process was launched as a symbolic and also functional regional multilateral cooperative engagement with the same set of South East European countries which all envisaged, hoped for and strove for status, recognition and acceptance as EU members at the earliest possible future stage of their respective national development and state-building trajectory. Their counterparts in that specific multilateral discourse represent only a subset of EU membership. Therefore, those states could not possibly claim to represent the Union itself. Although not restricted to the largest EU Member States, the dominant presence of the United Kingdom, France and Italy besides the spiritus rector, Germany, on the side of participants from the EU lent credence and weight to the initiative as a dedicated political and diplomatic platform facilitating the admission of actual and possible candidates from the Western Balkans.
The Berlin Process was conceived to address questions not covered by EU accession directly, such as regional cooperation, reconciliation and the settlement of bilateral disputes. In that respect, the German initiative in 2014 intended to promote regional multilateral dimensions in addition to or, rather, in a complementary manner to the modus operandi of EU integration. In the course of EU accession the main focus of candidate countries is firmly set on the legal, institutional and technical requirements of adaptation of their own national juridical (normative and organisational) system and policies to the EU acquis as a bilateral transaction with the Union.
So far, the Berlin Process has played a constructive role as an intergovernmental initiative contributing to the motivation and reinforcement of policies and state institutions in the Western Balkans by promoting regional collaboration for concrete purposes. 2025 seemed already a distant, but perceptible point in time as the earliest prospective entry date (indicated in the Enlargement Strategy of the EU announced in February 2018) for the first wave of new members from South Eastern Europe. Due to its complementary role and limited effect with respect to the transformative potential of (even the prospect of) EU enlargement, any achievement within the Berlin Process is easily overshadowed or diminished by the lingering doubt about the timing and final shape of any future accession from the Western Balkans.
The latest promising and concrete result of an emerging Regional Economic Area: an evolutionary leap in regional cooperation?
At the 2017 annual summit of the Berlin Process in Trieste, the leaders of WB6 endorsed the Multiannual Action Plan (MAP) on a Regional Economic Area in the Western Balkans. In illustration of the cooperative complementarity of the Berlin Process (an informal string of annual diplomatic conclaves) and the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) (a standing regional organisational framework for the Balkans), the agreed roadmap was prepared by the RCC, and it was also entrusted with the tasks of monitoring and evaluating the progress in the implementation of the agreed form of regional economic integration among the Western Balkans states.
In the latest instance of discernible actual progress towards implementation in their adopted Action Plan, the heads of state and governments from Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia reached an agreement on 10 October 2019 on the principles and contours of the regional integration envisaged in Trieste. In their joint declaration of intent, the three countries pledged to open their borders to the movement of goods, capital, people and services from one another. The trio of founding members invited other Western Balkans countries to join the initiative, which was ambitiously identified as „mini Schengen” and expected to boost economic growth and foreign investment. The three partners announced that they would discuss „concrete” measures and expect to conclude a founding agreement on a regional integrative framework for a common market in the Western Balkans at their planned next meeting in Ohrid in a month. It would certainly indicate a political milestone in the relations of the participating Western Balkans countries and also demonstrate another tangible “product” of the initiatives stimulated through the deliberations and multilateral discourse of the Berlin Process.
This does not mean a deviation from the declared strategic aim of all Western Balkans states to ensure their future within the European Union. As the adopted respective Action Plan already clearly stated, the envisaged Regional Economic Area of Western Balkans would be based on the Central European Free Trade Association (CEFTA) and EU rules as defined in the Stabilisation and Association Agreements (SAAs) signed by all of them. Any version of regional economic integration is not meant to substitute for EU integration or represent an alternative for the countries in the Western Balkans. On the contrary, it is perceived and conceived as a joint preparation and journey to their shared desirable final destination – their integration into the European Union.
Since the measures of implementation for the establishment of regional economic integration are designed to build on the CEFTA norms and obligations under their respective SAA frameworks, the creation of a Western Balkans common market along those rules would reinforce their already ongoing (Montenegro and Serbia) or intended future normative adaptation (the rest of the WB6) in the course of their accession process to the EU. If the intended Regional Economic Area is to be governed by the norms and standards of applicable EU law, the creation and operation of their common market offers the opportunity for parallel preparation and harmonisation of national legal systems with a view to their future EU accession.
The latest failure to open the long procedure of membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia demonstrated the political inability of the Union to live up to its own self-portrait and aspirations as a regional power capable of and intent on shaping its strategic environment. In the absence of a reassuring prospect for launching EU accession with the remaining four countries, the Visegrad Group – together with all other willing and able EU members (the cluster of Friends of Enlargement) – should endeavour to provide all possible means of political support and technical assistance for the realisation of regional economic integration in the Western Balkans. The WB6 partners must be kept on the track of SAA implementation and law harmonisation as measures facilitating their possible regional common market and also as preparations for their eventual EU accession process.
EU enlargement in question
Practically, the six Western Balkans states are already integrated to a large extent into the EU on various accounts of their economic reality: their exports, the provenance of foreign direct investment (FDI), the ownership of most institutions in their financial sectors and also the destination of the emigration of its population.
The disunity in the European Council at its meeting on 17 and 18 October 2018 revealed not only existing contested assessments and approaches to the initiation of accession talks with two other Western Balkans countries, but it also highlighted the essentially political and open-ended nature of all stages of EU enlargement. In unmistakably blunt French manner, the rejection of the fulfilment of previous collective EU commitments infused a pervasive sense of uncertainty into the option of EU expansion. Although the perspective and purpose of the inter-governmental “enlargement” dialogue is stated by both sides, the final outcome and the definitive conclusion of the entire complex, incremental and asymmetric discourse between the Union and “candidate” countries (even more so in the case of “potential candidates”) must be understood as contingent upon the possibly changing political deliberations and/or static ideological fixations of some EU Member States. By implication, the latest reversal on a previous collective EU commitment to the harmless act of opening negotiations signalled that protracted and demanding negotiations hold no guarantee for passage until the very end of the procedure. The entire rite of adaptation, assimilation and accommodation to the EU requirements could easily prove a futile and illusionary exercise of misguided pursuit of a mirage of the “European future” first promised at the Thessaloniki EU summit in 2003.
There can be no assurance that any or every candidate from the Western Balkans (or anywhere else) would eventually become an EU Member State. Even after years of negotiations, new admission to the Union can be impeded by the denial of approval for the conclusion of negotiations by the actual government of one or more Member States. Another insurmountable obstacle to eventual accession lies in the possible rejection of the ratification of an accession treaty by referendum (for instance as prescribed by the French Constitution after its last amendment in 2008) or in a parliamentary vote in one of the EU member states.
Even without the sinister prospect of an inconclusive undertaking inherently vulnerable to unilateral political decisions throughout the procedure, the extended accession process offers many occasions and means to exercise effective control and ensure full compliance with the political requirements of the Union. Continuous prolongation and various delaying tactics have already been developed and deployed by the European Commission and some EU members from the repertoire of applicable negotiating techniques and tools. Certain EU countries resort to the imposition of political conditions on the opening for review and negotiations with candidates (for instance, Montenegro) of very technical chapters of the EU acquis (such as competition policy, including state aid) in spite of its relevance for the regulation of foreign investment in the candidate country by foreign powers (Russia and China) identified as “systemic rivals” to the EU.
Maintaining the momentum of integration into the European Union is undoubtedly not a panacea for all the problems of the Western Balkans, but it is the most efficient foreign policy instrument the EU can deploy to keep these countries on track and motivate regional stability. Any unjustifiable, and therefore unnecessary delay in EU enlargement into the Western Balkans is a politically short-sighted approach and the manifestation of a collective inability of the Union as a political alliance to assume responsibility for shaping its own immediate strategic environment.
The denial of even the formal opening of an extended negotiation process reveals deep divisions among Member States regarding the future composition and shape of the Union. No further or, more accurately, no foreseeable enlargement at all seems currently agreeable to some EU members. Not only the opening of any new accession process, but the eventual admission of countries already engaged in negotiations (for years now) for that purpose can be expected without internal structural adjustment of the European Union in the light of the stated positions of the cluster of opponents to enlargement. (In contrast to the Tallinn Group, the so-called Friends of Enlargement, a group of opponents or “enlargement sceptics” have emerged or taken discernible shape in the political debates of the General Affairs Council and in the decisive clash of priorities – from national and EU perspectives – within the European Council in October 2019.)
Although no imminent enlargement threatens the operation of the EU, the prospect of future admission of additional countries already appears (to some Member States) to raise the spectre of undesirable further increase in the heterogeneity of members and in the difficulties of decision-making.
V4 position with regard to EU enlargement into its South East European neighbourhood
In their joint letter to the President of the European Council, the prime ministers of the Visegrad Group warned that any “further delay in making the positive decision” would result in a serious deterioration of stability in the region and limit the ability of the EU to perform “an active role in our own neighbourhood” calling for a “decisive discussion” among EU heads of state and government at their summit in October 2019. It was the latest example of commendable and direct diplomatic engagement by the V4 countries at the highest level in support of EU enlargement.
The governments of some EU members (most notably and explicitly, France) openly opposing further enlargement on the basis of the current method and procedure invoke the examples of Poland and Hungary as intractable cases of notable “deviants” in the respect for EU fundamental values and as conspicuous evidence of the alleged internal difficulties within the Union to maintain cohesion with its current membership. Repeated references to Poland and Hungary – as instances of disappointing and annoying member states from the last rounds of EU enlargement – has been made as reasons for precaution in the acceptance of possible further countries as new entrants.
Although it is apparently hardly more than a convenient excuse for concealing other motives, it nevertheless indicates the unfortunate spill-over of internal ideological conflict (of interpretations over contested national policies and practices) into the external relations of the Union. Besides revealing the deep void in the strategic understanding of the role of the EU in shaping its immediate strategic environment in South Eastern Europe, it also attempts to pin the blame on Poland and Hungary as deterrent examples for the refusal of Western Balkans hopefuls. It is a shrewd, but transparent argument to attach shame and responsibility to these Central European countries for the disillusionment and aversion of other EU members towards the possible admission of further countries.
Ironically, both countries together with the other two Visegrad countries have consistently and unreservedly supported EU enlargement for years, individually and collectively in their coordinated positions. Presenting their unified stance on that matter, the V4 cluster has invariably and repeatedly confirmed its commitment to supporting the accession aspirations of WB6 countries for more than a decade. In May 2019 the foreign ministers of the Visegrad Group held the 10th annual congregation with their Western Balkans counterparts. On each occasion, it has been confirmed that the Central European quartet sustains unconditional endorsement of the enlargement process towards the aspirants from South Eastern Europe.
Advisable areas of concerted Visegrad actions in cooperation with Germany in pursuit of continued EU enlargement
With respect to the future direction of their continued support for the EU accession of Western Balkans countries, the Visegrad governments would be well-advised to intensify their efforts – in coordination with the Friends of Enlargement, the Tallinn Group – to engage all potential and willing partners inside the EU in three crucial aspects of EU enlargement. Germany will prove an indispensable ally in the course of enhanced efforts by the V4 group to seek remedy and provide renewed momentum to the further growth of the EU after the recent demoralising setback in the accession process.
- First, the geopolitical and strategic rationale underpinning the expansion of the European Union into South Eastern Europe should be reinforced as the principal objective of enlargement prevailing over the political purpose of social engineering in pursuit of creating ideal post-national European countries in the Western Balkans prior to their EU accession.
- Second, it will be inevitable to change the tone and perspective of the discourse on the nature and reason of enlargement at all levels of intergovernmental coordination and decision-making (from working groups of the Council to the heads of state and government in the European Council) and in the supranational organs (European Commission and European Parliament) of the European Union as well as within EU member states. Relying on the experience and evidence of 15 years of EU membership in the wake of the largest act of enlargement in the history of EU integration, V4 countries should take the lead in changing the perception of EU enlargement and insist on its honest explanation as a mutually beneficial strategic bargain for all sides. In response to the profoundly wrong and incorrect perception of EU enlargement as an act of charity and generosity by wealthy EU members towards less prosperous countries, the Visegrad Group should recall and stress repeatedly the evident example of the benefits of Central and Eastern European accession to the economies and foreign intra-European foreign trade of other EU members.
- Third, the Visegrad countries need to make concerted efforts to ensure that the necessary financial resources will be available in the next budgetary cycle for EU enlargement. In order to secure sufficient funds for pre-accession financial assistance, the final size and structure of the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) should include appropriations for the material support of EU accession to cover the considerable expenses of transformation and adaptation as well as to reinforce the administrative, institutional and structural capacities of EU candidates from the Western Balkans for the years of their membership preparations. Without adequate budgetary resources, EU enlargement as the previously most successful policy instrument of the European Union’s external relations would be practically deprived of its most effective facilitating tool and incentive for the implementation of often costly reforms in candidate countries.
The project covering publication of this article is co-financed by the Governments of Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia through Visegrad Grants from International Visegrad Fund. The mission of the fund is to advance ideas for sustainable regional cooperation in Central Europe.