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Complementary or Contrary? Discussing the Berlin Process and Open Balkan Initiative

October 28, 2022 by BSC

Thursday’s final panel addressed friction between the Berlin Process and the Open Balkan initiative. Moderator Zoran Nechev, the Head of the Center for EU integration at the Institute for Democracy Societas Civilis, framed the discussion with a simple question: can these two frameworks coexist? Among panelists, three positions emerged. The first position supported the superiority of the Berlin Process. The second approach recommended integrating the two frameworks. The final stance suggested that both frameworks are complementary, 

Jovana Marovic, Deputy Prime Minister of Montenegro, asserted there are “too many regional initiatives in the Western Balkans.” Their efficacy is stymied by a “lack of political will to change.” Marovic noted both frameworks possess strengths and weaknesses. The Berlin Process includes all six Western Balkan states, guiding them towards an “EU perspective.” However, it is not proactive. It implements top-down changes rather than inspiring bottom-up desires for development. Conversely, the Open Balkan initiative is driven by endogenous political will for regional integration. However, the initiative’s governing framework and structure are unclear. It is difficult to assess its tangible economic benefits. Marovic asserted that the “novelties of the Open Balkan initiative” should be merged with the framework of the Berlin Process. When questioned about Montenegro’s stance on the Open Balkan initiative (of which it is not a member) Marovic noted that Montenegro has no official position. This is largely because the Open Balkan question is “deeply politicized.”  

Veton Surroi, a Kosovan writer, politician, and activist, assumed a neutral position. He asserted Western Balkan states, when selecting a framework, need to remember that they are operating in a region torn by unresolved conflicts. The answer to the framework question is not “either-or.” The two should be merged. Surroi noted the merits of both frameworks. He observed the Berlin Process provides an economic and a security umbrella. The Open Balkan initiative has produced concrete results and provides potential members flexibility with its opt-in/opt-out structure. Surroi concluded that any framework needs to develop a common regional market. This will accelerate with EU accession. Finally, Surroi noted that cooperation with EU member states is key to solving bilateral issues. This was demonstrated by Berlin’s assistance in quickly resolving the “ID dispute” between Western Balkan states.  

Edward P. Joseph, a Senior Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, cautioned that “economic power is political power.” His concern with the Open Balkan initiative is that Serbia, the economic hegemon in the Western Balkans, is autocratic. Serbia’s ability to dominate the initiative should be overlooked. Joseph expressed his preference for the Berlin Process, which brings the “Western Balkans under the umbrella of the EU.” When asked by Nechev of the US’ official position on the Open Balkan initiative, Joseph noted the US supports the initiative as long as it aligns with the Berlin Process. However, Joseph questioned the efficacy of having two overlapping frameworks. He contended that three non-member countries of the Open Balkan initiative all have grievances with Belgrade. This suggests the attractiveness of the initiative is influenced by Serbian nationalism.  

Goran Buldioski, the Director of Program at Open Society- Europe and Central Asia, stated that the Western Balkans need a structure that delivers both economically and politically. Any framework should achieve an endpoint in line with the preferences of member countries. What those preferences are, however, is up for debate. Buldioski’s stance was suggestively neutral. He noted that the Open Balkan initiative brings agency to the region, providing effective political communication from national leaders to citizens. The Berlin Process lacks this communication strategy as a technocratic, EU imposed directive.   

Odeta Barbullushi held that the Berlin Process – Open Balkan question is not a binary one: the two can coexist. She emphasized that “bottom-up” political will drives the Open Balkan She noted that multiple frameworks can also provide “multiple channels of coordination that allows leaders to address various points in the EU Acquis.” Barbullushi contended that the Open Balkan initiative has provided tangible economic benefits to Albania, specifically in connection with tourism, agriculture, and the labor market. Barbullushi sees the initiative as a path to further regional cooperation, and thus complementary with the Berlin Process.