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Monday, 19 February 2018

Berlin Process: A bridge between the Western Balkans and the EU?

Tobias Flessenkemper agreed with the term bridge. Chancellor Merkel had launched the initiative after Juncker had effectively ruled out early moves towards EU accession by the Western Balkans, Russian action in the Crimea, and major protests in BiH as a result of recession. She had revived inter-governmentalism and regional cooperation as tools for making progress.

Goran Svilanovic also agreed that the Berlin Process filled a yawning gap. It encouraged cooperation in the region on free trade in services, harmonisation of investment related services, free movement of labour and encouragement for international roaming.

Spyros Economides commented that the security agenda tended to sound old-fashioned, but the issues still existed and wording needed to be updated. Security meant also development, prosperity and resilience, as well as conflict-prevention, reconciliation and defences against organised crime and corruption. The UK needed to be kept interested and involved in all this, despite Brexit.

James Ker-Lindsay said that beyond the security agenda, there was little to bind the UK with the Western Balkans. Only 65,000 from the region lived in the UK, trade was low, and Ministerial attention in the context of Brexit was mainly focussed elsewhere (US, China, India).

Andrew Page confirmed that as a major security player the UK had a strong interest in South East Europe. All forms of crime and trafficking and Russian meddling had an impact on the UK, and were priorities for the National Security Council. The Summit in London in July 2018 was a major event, and the plan was to develop policy on a multi-year basis, as part of the UK’s economic, security and political agenda.
Marika Djolai described how civil society had increasingly become part of the Berlin Process. On the margins at the Vienna Summit, it had become more central, with a focus on youth cooperation, the rule of law, and the anti-corruption agenda. Civil Society should play a more integrated and active role at the London Summit.

In the ensuing discussion, many points were raised.

Why London? This had been promised to the UK before the referendum outcome, and pacta sunt servanda. In any case, it showed how the UK could remain part of Europe despite Brexit.

Why Warsaw as the next Summit? Again, this was an attempt to bind in Poland at a difficult time.

Why the lack of emphasis on democracy/rule of law/human rights in the Berlin Process? These were all there in the accession process, chapters 23 and 24, the Berlin Process was an attempt to make progress/ fill a gap on other issues while accession was in abeyance (though now see the latest Commission document).

Reconciliation and improvements in the teaching of history were essential.

Before reconciliation there had to be respect/civility/recognition. Connectivity and digitalisation both required regulation eg of hate speech.

What was the comparative advantage of the UK? Could Brexit become a pro rather than a con?

There were 22 million displaced persons in the area of the EU: migration had to feature on the agenda of the Berlin Process.

In concluding comments, the speakers added:

Svilanovic: a recent Eurobarometer poll showed that 30% of the peoples of the Western Balkans countries thought that they would never come part of the EU. There was a danger that this would become a self-fulfilling property. For WB countries, bilateral problems were enormously important, but slow to solve. Hence the significance of the Berlin Process as a way forward. There were no vacuums in geopolitics.

James Ker-Lindsay; the UK taking a leading role in the Berlin Process was incongruous. Our language on sovereignty was incompatible.

Economides; geo-politically the Western Balkans mattered to the EU. But who knows what the EU would look like in 2025, the earliest date for the next round of accession.

Flessenkemper: Brexit would mean a less differentiated EU, which the WB 6 would find it less easy to join. The implementation of norms was classic EU fare, and there were no short cuts. The Berlin Process could not overcome or sidestep this basic truth.

Djolai: the Berlin Process had been created to support a reform process. This was being done. But there was no clear monitoring process.

Page: the UK was an enduring player on security issues in the region: NATO, KFOR, EUFOR. It was not going to go away.

David Madden (St Antony's College, Oxford)

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