"Open Balkan" or the Berlin Process: Why do they in the EU think that there is no place for both initiatives?
The "Open Balkan" initiative, since its launch in 2019, has received a lot of support from the United States of America, but it is somewhat "quiet" from the European Union, primarily Germany, due to the Berlin Process, which was launched almost ten years ago by then-Chancellor Angela Merkel in order to connect the Balkans with the help of the EU.
What bothers some Union officials and politicians is that the "Open Balkan", although open to everyone in the region who wants to join it, does not include the entire "Western Balkans six", but only Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia, so they see it as incompatible with the Berlin process, but also with the European integration of the region.
Matters surrounding the "Open Balkan" were recently stirred up by Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, when he announced the end of this initiative a few months ago, saying that it had been created to improve the Berlin Process and that that mission had been accomplished. The President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, said at the time that he did not believe that Rama thought so, while there was no comment from Skopje.
Nevertheless, Macedonian analysts agree that the "Open Balkan" is a useful initiative, that provides concrete benefits to citizens, and through economic cooperation, facilitates the resolution of political issues.
An analyst from Skopje, Petar Arsov, explains for Kosovo Online that there are several reasons why the "Open Balkan" is perceived as a competition to the Berlin Process, primarily because the economic initiative slowly gained a political dimension, but also because of fear in the European Union.
"The 'Open Balkan' was conceived to start as an economic initiative, for the sake of the free flow of goods and people, and it is already gaining some political dimensions, i.e. attempts are being made to coordinate policies or adopt common positions on certain issues. This is one of the reasons why it annoys the creators of the Berlin Process, who think that the 'Open Balkan' can 'eat' it," Arsov says.
He reminds that, on this issue, Germany was clear and loud.
He sees another reason in the fact that not all leaders of the "Open Balkan" countries always see all issues in the same way, so their disagreements in certain political positions sometimes cause problems.
The third reason, he notes, is the European Union's fear, expressed through the Berlin Process, that the "Open Balkan" will become a substitute for the Union, but more like a "unification of people who are in the waiting room of the EU".
When asked what the future of that initiative was, he answered that the process of European integration and the "Open Balkan" were natural competitors, but also interconnected.
For example, if the European integration process of North Macedonia and Albania were to speed up, then it would "extract" energy from the "Open Balkan" and direct it towards the EU, but as European integration stands - the "Open Balkan" gains weight, because it has become the only way to coordinate the policies of the countries of the region.
"It is a process of connected courts, and I don't know if the leaders will find a way for those two processes to run parallel, without eating each other up," Arsov said.
When it comes to 2030 as the year of possible admission of the countries of the region to the EU, which was recently outlined by the head of the European Council Charles Michel at the summit in Athens, Arsov says that this deadline is very difficult to implement.
"If you ask the EU and even official Berlin, they will tell you that there is nothing wrong with the 'Open Balkan', which should not be a substitute for the EU. It is also true that EU leaders, and especially the US, want to make an effort for faster integration of the Western Balkans into the Union because the EU plans to grant Ukraine some special status at the end of the year, perhaps a symbolic start of negotiations. In order for the Western Balkans not to get stuck on that road, I think we have a chance to get some kind of 'fast track', which Macron already talked about. That is one possible way," he explains.
He points out, however, that the countries of the Western Balkans are not ready for EU membership, but also reminds that none of the countries that became members by political decision, such as Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, and Slovenia, were also ready to join the Union.
When asked if Macedonians felt the benefits of the "Open Balkan" initiative, he answered in the affirmative and cited examples of a common tag for toll collection with Serbia, a special fast lane for trucks crossing the border. That was why, he said, it was difficult for something that was natural and brought benefits to be "suffocated" by the promise of European integration by 2030.
He also states that surveys show that support for the "Open Balkan" in North Macedonia is around 70 percent, and interestingly, among all ethnic communities and on all issues.
"It is one of the initiatives that, along with the EU, enjoys the greatest support, and at the moment perhaps even more than the Union," Arsov notes.
On the statement that Kosovo rejects the possibility of joining the "Open Balkan", while Montenegro is thinking about it, he says that he is optimistic in the case of Podgorica joining, which is not the case for Pristina.
"I think Montenegro will be faster, while for Kosovo the question is whether it can join, because we are entering a legal vacuum since Belgrade and Pristina do not recognize each other, and I don't know how it would look on paper. So the case of Kosovo is a bit more complicated, but I am sure that the citizens there also see the benefits. I am more optimistic for Montenegro and less optimistic for Kosovo," Arsov concluded.
Ivica Bocevski, a diplomatic adviser at the Center for Research and Applied Policy in North Macedonia, points out that the establishment of a unified market in the Balkans makes it easier to solve other political issues.
"I cannot understand why there are sparks between the 'Open Balkan' and the Berlin Process. It seems that these are more bureaucratic quarrels than essential differences because the processes are not antagonistic but compatible," Bocevski indicates.
He reminds that "Open Balkan" met with great sympathy in Skopje because it was a spontaneous initiative.
"Despite the fact that there are some negative voices, when Serbia and Albania are at the table, and Macedonia is invited to join, of course, we will participate in that initiative," Bocevski says, and states that the problem with the "Open Balkan" – it is 23 years "late".
That the "Open Balkan" can significantly contribute to the economic development of the region, as the former Ambassador of Macedonia in Brazil, Bocevski cites the example of Mercosur - a political and economic organization made up of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela.
When the EU concluded an agreement with the Mercosur countries, not long after that, EFTA also concluded an agreement with that limitation, so as not to jeopardize the competitiveness of their economy, imports, and exports.
"In order for the 'Open Balkan' to function, it must follow and monitor everything that the EU does, so that countries can be competitive, invest in the economy, trade... I hope that this initiative will gain depth and that, whenever the EU approaches other markets and regional integrations, the 'Open Balkan' follows it. It is a mechanism by which the countries of the region can cooperate with each other, with the EU, and with third countries," Bocevski advises.
That would be nothing new, he points out, and reminds that the countries of the Visegrad Group, which have a rotating presidency, make visits as a group, because they get easier interlocutors, especially in large countries.
"And the 'Open Balkan' is a dimension in which this can be done, to do 'co-diplomacy', to jointly represent ourselves around the world, in front of Mercosur, the African Union, the ASEAN countries. It is positive what Serbia did in Jakarta, in terms of cooperation with ASEAN, but it would be nicer if the whole 'Open Balkan' did it," Bocevski said.
That is why he believes that the initiative should be expanded, but in a way that respects the differences, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of countries, as a platform for international dialogue for the development of society and economy.
"We still have good announcements, the implementation is delayed, but the initiative is there, the spirit, the enthusiasm. The implementation has started, we hope that it will be finished and that we will open the market," Bocevski concluded.