Home Politics (ISF interview) Hackaj: Paradoxically, the challenges in the Western Balkans remain in bilateral cooperation and not in regional cooperation

(ISF interview) Hackaj: Paradoxically, the challenges in the Western Balkans remain in bilateral cooperation and not in regional cooperation

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This weekend, Tirana hosts the Western Balkans Civil Society and Think Tank Forum, which will be followed on Monday by the Berlin Process Leaders’ Summit. This is the first time since the launch of the Berlin Process in 2014 that a summit has taken place in a Western Balkan country, which, according to Ardian Hackaj, is an opportunity for the region to show its political commitment to this initiative.

Hackaj, research director of the Institute for Cooperation and Development, one of the co-organizers of the Civil Society Forum, highlights the added value of the Berlin process for the region, citing the example of Kosovo and Serbia. Despite the deterioration of their bilateral relations, he said, the two countries are implementing the three mobility agreements – on the mutual recognition of identity cards, university degrees and professional qualifications – signed in Berlin last year.

The Berlin Process was created nine years ago with the aim of improving regional cooperation in the Western Balkans and bringing it closer to EU standards. The Civil Society Forum was created a year later. As voices in favor of EU enlargement grow louder, both processes, Hackaj believes, will remain relevant to keeping the region’s development on “EU rails”.

European Western Balkans: What are the current priorities of the Berlin process and to what extent do you think the Western Balkan governments are committed to achieving them?

Ardian Hackaj: Top of the list of priorities in 2023 are the implementation of the Green Agenda; the acceleration of regional integration in the service of WB6 – EU convergence; greater focus on integrated border management and better coordination in migration management; accelerate WB6’s progress towards EU membership and intensify any tangible contribution to reconciliation.

Concrete results would be the signing of new regional common market agreements that are technically ready (especially those prepared under CEFTA); the completion of the ratification process of three mobility agreements signed last year in Berlin (which Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro have not yet completed) and their smooth implementation through the creation and functioning of joint commissions and working groups.

ISF: How do you interpret the fact that Albania is hosting the first Berlin Process in the Western Balkans region, just as it hosted the first EU-Western Balkans summit last year?

Oh: This is a very good development for Albania and a very good opportunity for the region to be able to demonstrate political commitment to the Berlin process and great professionalism in organizing a high-level event so complex. But it is also a litmus test of the ability and willingness of the Western Balkans political elite to welcome and/or sit at similar policy-making tables with their colleagues in the EU and to debate, reach an agreement and implement it.

ISF: The Tirana summit on October 16 will be preceded by the Civil Society Forum, which is also a regular part of the Berlin process. To what extent has civil society succeeded in influencing the process?

Oh: Thanks to the Berlin Process, civil society found a unique forum to reach a critical mass, to express its demands and, consequently, to increase its degree of involvement in political debates impacting regional cooperation, the program of connectivity and enlargement in general. The next step for CSOs is to increase their knowledge of different sectoral policies and respective policy-making mechanisms so that they can effectively use them beyond the monitoring function.

ISF: This year’s Civil Society Forum has seven topics. Do they differ in terms of the level of regional cooperation between governments? In your opinion, in which area is there the best level of cooperation and in which remains the most difficult?

Oh: The best level of cooperation is in the sectors covered by a regional cooperation structure: Regional Cooperation Council and CEFTA for Common Regional Market; Energy Community for Energy, Transport Community for Transport, Regional School of Public Administration for strengthening administrative capacities, or Regional Youth Cooperation Office. I must add that non-governmental cooperation platforms such as Connecting Youth, for example, play a very important role, because they complement government cooperation with a bottom-up approach. Paradoxically, the challenges remain in bilateral cooperation and not in regional cooperation. It is enough to note that despite the blocking of the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, the two countries are implementing the three mobility agreements signed in Berlin last year. This shows the real added value of the Berlin process.

ISF: The themes “Access to the EU single market” and “Enlargement policy” are treated separately. Does this reflect the expectation of some form of gradual EU membership, for which a growing number of supporters are becoming vocal? What shape do you think would be best for the Western Balkans?

Oh: This reflects the broad scope of the Tirana Civil Society Forum: it includes both political debate and the specifics of policy-making. At the political level, it is political will that takes center stage, while within the Single Market Working Group, it is the specifics of a certain scenario that are discussed and debated. The fact remains that access to the single market is extremely difficult to achieve in practice, because in addition to the adoption of the acquired, this requires that Balkan institutions operate at the same level of good governance standards as those of the Member States. Furthermore, Member States will be extremely vigilant with regard to any attack coming from the region which could harm their national interests. Finally, the current European market surveillance and enforcement system must be overhauled to accommodate the possible inclusion of six new countries.

ISF: Themes of the Civil Society Forum include digitalization and the Green Deal, which are also among the main political priorities at EU level. Can the Western Balkans catch up with the Union in these areas?

Oh: They will only be able to catch up if they are adequately and meaningfully supported by the EU. The very nature of these policies relies on huge investments, mainly in infrastructure – EU countries receive billions every year. Therefore, for South East Europe to catch up without adequate EU support and access to cohesion funds, this catch-up scenario is not realistic. At the school library, we strongly support the development-based scenario which allows faster access of the Western Balkans region to EU cohesion policies.

ISF: How do you see the future of the Berlin Process and the Civil Society Forum? The EU appears to be seriously considering enlargement again, although it remains to be seen what the dynamics will be. However, if this issue remains at the top of the EU agenda, what will this mean for the Berlin process?

Oh: The Berlin Process contributes to enlargement through the political will of Member States and Western Balkan countries focused on issues of systemic importance for the EU and BM6, such as regional cooperation, development, transition green, connectivity, market convergence, etc. All these elements contribute concretely to the development of the Western Balkans, hence the convergence of the region with the EU. Whatever form enlargement takes, the political leadership and on-the-ground support of the Berlin Process will be needed to keep this development on track in the EU.

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