Western Balkans Six leaders signed three agreements under the Berlin Process on Thursday (3 November), sending positive signals ahead of the crucial Western Balkans summit due to take place in Albania in December.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and top EU officials – Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel – joined the leaders of Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania to the summit of the Berlin process.
“Europe without the Western Balkans is not complete and countries in the region must have confidence in the Berlin process,” said Scholz, who hosted the meeting.
This format, launched in 2014 under former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, aims to foster rapprochement between the six Western Balkan states and certain EU countries and to promote integration between the states of the region.
Scholz said the six Western Balkan countries “belong to the free and democratic part of Europe,” emphasizing the need to realize their long-held desire to join the EU.
In their joint communiqué, the participants agreed to hold the next summit of the Berlin Process in 2023 in Albania. The country will also host the next Western Balkans summit on December 9, 2022.
After two years of intense negotiations, the six countries reached agreements that will facilitate the free movement of citizens throughout the region and the mutual recognition of the professional qualifications of doctors, dentists and architects. Currently, recognition of these documents can cost their holder up to €500.
These agreements are not only seen as a major step forward for regional integration, but they also carry particular weight in the context of ongoing tensions between Belgrade and Pristina.
Minor incidents have been reported on the border between the two countries in recent days as Pristina begins to implement a law requiring all citizens to have Kosovo license plates, impacting ethnic Serbs from the north who insist on retaining those issued before Kosovo’s independence.
Scholz said he hoped the new agreement on mutual recognition would pave the way for greater conciliation between the two countries.
“It is time to overcome the regional conflicts that have divided you for a long time and the process of normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia must be accelerated,” Scholz added.
The chancellor said Russia’s war in Ukraine made the resolution even more necessary “to preserve the freedom and security of Europe”, otherwise it could “divide you and slow down your countries on the path to Europe”.
The agreement was reached just weeks after several Western Balkan media outlets leaked a Franco-German non-document on the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia.
Even though its existence has been confirmed by Belgrade and Pristina, views on what it contains differ. According to media reports, the plan envisages Belgrade accepting, without formally recognizing, the independence of Kosovo while obtaining in exchange financial advantages and the prospect of EU membership.
Speaking in Berlin, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama praised Scholz for his role in negotiating the three agreements.
“I cannot help but point out that these agreements were three agreements that we had been looking forward to for two or three years; they were blocked,” Rama said.
Referring to EU enlargement, Rama also said that countries in the region finally feel that they are not left alone.
European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen’s recent tour of some Western Balkan countries provided significant financial support beyond just words of solidarity, Rama added, referring to the 80 million euros earmarked to energy investments in his country.
His comments come as, largely because of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the EU enlargement process has suddenly come back to life after nearly a decade of stagnation.
Last week, the EU executive announced a 500 million euro energy support package for the region, as rising energy prices triggered by war in Russia and the onset of winter cause shock waves in European economies already struggling with growing inflation.
“The EU continues to support the Western Balkans – both in good times and in difficulties,” von der Leyen said in Berlin.
“We are investing in the economic fabric of the region to advance the clean energy transition and emerge greener, stronger and more sustainable from the current crisis,” she added.
For Berlin, EU enlargement “takes on new urgency due to the war in Ukraine and new geopolitical upheavals,” a senior German government official said.
At the same time, strengthening regional cooperation is key to countering Russia’s influence in the region, European diplomats have said in recent weeks.
“Russia’s strategy has been to manipulate divisions in the Western Balkans. We would like to counter this. We want to strengthen cooperation between these countries. And we would like to bring them closer to the EU,” said a senior German diplomat on condition of anonymity.
(Edited by Alice Taylor)