Home Venture Capital The Open Balkans initiative complements the Berlin process

The Open Balkans initiative complements the Berlin process

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Following the Western Balkans Summit with EU leaders in Berlin on November 3, the leaders of the six Western Balkan states signed three agreements aimed at strengthening their economic cooperation. The meeting took place within the framework of the Berlin process, which since 2014 has aimed to promote regional integration. The “Open Balkan” initiative was also launched with a similar objective, namely closer regional cooperation.

With the aim of enabling the free movement of people, goods, services and capital between its members, Albania, Serbia and North Macedonia signed agreements in 2019, initially under the name “Mini-Schengen » and since 2021 under the name “Open Balkans”. » (OBI). It focuses on economic issues that are expected to significantly improve the daily lives of citizens of these countries. For example, stated goals include mutual recognition of diplomas and work permits as well as cooperation on disaster prevention and food security.

Until now, the initiative, strongly supported by the United States, has been limited to intergovernmental formats and does not include an institutional framework, as is the case, for example, of the Regional Cooperation Council of the States of the Western Balkans in Sarajevo. Additionally, no treaty exists, making it difficult to define a clear objective and therefore set expectations. Instead, there is an open invitation to all Western Balkan countries to participate in all or some projects. For example, from January 2023, many restrictions on customs duties and capital transfers will be removed for the three OBI member states. THE World Bank estimates that these measures will save 30 million hours of waiting at borders and 3.2 billion euros.

Internal and external criticism

Despite this positive dynamic, only three of the six Western Balkan states are members of the OBI so far. Kosovo wants to avoid any impression of being content with a “waiting room” rather than full EU membership. Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti categorically rejected the initiative co-founded by Serbia, allowing it to demonstrate its domestic political strength. Moreover, calls for cooperation have so far been directed towards “the provisional institutions of Pristina» to underline Serbia’s failure to recognize Kosovo, this important formality alone therefore constitutes grounds for rejection.

The governments of Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina, on the other hand, are divided. In Sarajevo, the Serbian entity of the government supports the OBI, which is rejected by the Bosnian and Croatian entities. Thus, the initiative has become a political tool for obstructionist politics and is not necessarily evaluated based on its content. Members of the Podgorica government are also ambivalent. With the argument that the country is furthest along the path to EU membership, no new initiatives should jeopardize this trajectory. However, Montenegro recently showed interest and participated in the “Open Balkan” meeting in Ohrid as an observer.

The OBI receives little active support from the EU. Regarding the Berlin Process, which aims to guide the region towards EU membership, there are fears of duplication, which indeed cannot be ruled out. For example, in October 2022, agreements between all six The Western Balkan states were ultimately negotiated under a Western Balkans Conferencethe content of which was also decided by the three OBI countries in June 2022. In both cases, this concerned the recognition of personal documents and the mutual recognition of diplomas and professional qualifications.

However, this duplication can also be interpreted as intentional. Indeed, negotiations for these agreements began in 2021 as part of the Berlin process. However, due to disagreements between Serbia and Kosovo, no compromise could be found for a long time. Then, in June 2022, the three The OBI countries decided to move forward with the suggested agreements, but this became moot when a compromise between Serbia and Kosovo was finally reached in August 2022, and the agreements between all six The Balkan States were signed in Berlin on November 3. Such a sequence of events presumably led Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama to a somewhat exaggerated assessment that the OBI was a “implementation tool» of the Berlin process.

A positive dynamic

Overall, the OBI should be seen as complementary to the Berlin Process. After all, in addition to deeper regional cooperation organized by the Western Balkan states themselves, it remains important that the Western Balkan countries are closely involved in the EU decision-making process, whether it is purchasing common gas, migration via the so-called Balkan route, the implementation of the green agenda or the fight against cybercrime.

Furthermore, it is of great symbolic importance that after more than 40 regional initiatives over the last 25 years, this comes from the region itself and is thus associated with the often mentioned “local ownership”. The fact that Albania and Serbia, which are by no means natural political allies, jointly launched this initiative is in itself remarkable. Beyond its symbolic value, the OBI conceals other possibilities. Increased regional economic integration can boost foreign investment and strengthen countries’ economies. This in turn would better prepare the Western Balkan countries for their integration into the EU single market and, among other things, counteract the “brain drain” of the region.

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