In three years, the “Open Balkans” has failed to prove that it wants to include all countries on an equal footing. It implicitly challenges the Berlin process and consequently leads to the fragmentation of the region, increasing fears of Russian influence and paving the way for deepening divisions in the Balkans. While the Berlin Process is a safe route to the EU, the same cannot be said for the Open Balkans – Izabela Kisic, Executive Director of the Helsinki Committee in Serbia, tells Pobjeda. These messages do not worry the Abazovic government, which is in a technical mandate and should take a decision on Montenegro’s entry into the Open Balkans in the next 15 days, despite the negative analysis of the Ministry of European Affairs, as well as the opposition of the majority in Parliament.
Two Pobjeda sources close to the very top of the government have stated that Montenegro’s entry into the “Open Balkans” is already a “done deal”.
The Prime Minister has secured the support of Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelji for this decision, but even in the US administration, headed by Gabriel Escobar, they have stressed that they have nothing against it, our newspaper’s sources close to the top of the executive wrote, stressing that – if it is a decision that would be supported by a majority in the Montenegrin Parliament – they would not be opposed to it.
Lack of trust
Although it was set up in 2014 on the initiative of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Berlin Process has stalled in the face of Euroscepticism and the EU’s decision not to expand in the next five years. In the dormant phase, a new regional initiative – “Mini Schengen” – was established in Novi Sad in 2019, with the aim of free movement of people, goods and services. In 2021, it grew into the “Open Balkans”, joined by only three of the six countries in the region – Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia – which calls into question the justification for its existence.
The main drawback of the “Open Balkans” remains that it brings together only three and not all six partners from the Western Balkans. Lack of trust prevents Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo from joining, but I remind you that the EU is not built on trust, but on real interests, and that there has been a gap since German domination – explains Suzana Grubješić, vice president of the Center for Foreign Policy for Pobjeda.
Grubješić, who has served as Secretary General of the European Movement in Serbia, Vice President of the Serbian Government for European Integration and held various EU-related advisory roles, believes that the revival of the Berlin Process is mainly due to the fear of the spillover of the Ukraine crisis to the Western Balkans and less to a real determination to make the process truly accelerate the accession and integration of the region.
However, if the Berlin Process succeeds in speeding up the creation of the CRM (common regional market) and integrating it quickly into the single European market, it will be a great success, although economic integration cannot replace political integration of the countries of the region.
The Berlin Process was reactivated at the beginning of November, after a five-year hiatus, when all six Western countries signed three agreements on freedom of movement, recognition of diplomas and professional qualifications.
If ratified and implemented swiftly, the signed agreements will bring concrete improvements for citizens and this will be felt. This will restore confidence in European integration, which has been undermined in almost all countries for various reasons. The entry into force of the three agreements would for the first time have concrete results in the creation of a single market, as was the case with the abolition of roaming – explains Izabela Kisić, stressing that all this is taking place on the basis of the EU acquis, which supports a common approach of the Western Balkan countries to the everyday life issues of citizens.
This creates the conditions for economic growth and foreign investment in all countries of the region. It is on such agreements that the EU was built – says Kisic.
Although Serbia had hoped that the US would strongly support the “Open Balkans” – this has not happened. Gabriel Escobar, the US Special Envoy for the Western Balkans, made it clear at the Open Balkans Summit in Ohrid in June that the US supports the Open Balkans as an economic initiative aimed at creating more opportunities for people in the region, but that “cross-border cooperation needs to be directed towards greater European integration”. He then reiterated that the US “supports all initiatives that bring the region closer to the EU and promote stability” and stressed that “for the initiative to be successful, it must include all six Western Balkan countries on an equal footing”.
“Open Balkans” is often criticised as a self-promotion of the Serbian President and his influence on the Serbs in the region, Montenegro and BiH, who should promote the initiative in these countries. This is also what the technical Prime Minister of Montenegro, Dritan Abazovic, is trying to do on Vucic’s orders.
Kisić says that the “Open Balkans” did not have the capacity to include all the countries of the region on an equal basis and because of the distrust of the region towards the Serbian president.
It was seen as an initiative of the President of Serbia and the Prime Minister of Albania – Aleksandar Vucic and Edi Rama, focused on the interests of political elites and not on citizens. On the other hand, it did not have the capacity because it did not take into account the political criteria for the enlargement of the European Union and did not resolve the political disputes between the Member States, particularly in relation to Serbia and Kosovo. It was often based on political blackmail of ‘take it or leave it’, which made it impossible to implement. For example, the application of the agreements on diplomas that had been made earlier was never fully implemented, explains Kisic.
The EU’s great comeback
The Berlin agreements have the strong support of the European Union, which is not the case with the “Open Balkans”. After the signing of the agreement, the EU took a decision on energy aid to the region. No EU country has ever stood behind the Open Balkans project. The increased dynamics associated with the Berlin process will certainly marginalise the “Open Balkans” project. The Open Balkans does not have the mechanisms or the budget to implement it. It was created as an alternative to the Berlin Process, but the Berlin Process has now returned to the region. Of course, it is not excluded that Serbia will continue to obstruct and delay the parliamentary verification of the agreement, which is the first step towards their entry into force – explains Kisic./Pobjeda/