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Are the Western Balkan countries headed for EU membership?

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Berlin, Nov 03: "We are talking about historic steps" —؅ that is how German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock announced the planned signing of three agreements at the Western Balkans Conference, a summit in Berlin involving leading politicians from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and the European Union within the framework of the Berlin Process.

Are the Western Balkan countries headed for EU membership?

The Berlin Process was initiated in 2014 under Chancellor Angela Merkel to bring the six Western Balkan states closer to the EU. To date, the meetings have mainly been joint photo opportunities for politicians. This time, however, the focus will be on concrete issues including the mutual recognition of identity cards, university degrees and professional diplomas. What sounds like a formality would be a step forward for the people of the Western Balkans, given that the signatories include countries like Serbia and Kosovo, which faced off in the 1999 Kosovo war and still have not formally recognized each others' independence.

At a preparatory conference on October 21 at the Berlin Foreign Ministry, Baerbock made it clear she regards the upcoming signatures as a credit to German diplomacy. Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke with all Western Balkans heads of government and state in the first months of his term in office and he also visited the region.

Interest in the Western Balkans has increased significantly in the EU since the Russian attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Serbia, as well as Republika Srpska — the Serb-dominated part of Bosnia— do not or only half-heartedly support the EU's policy against the Putin regime. Moscow is trying to gain or increase its influence in other Western Balkan countries, too.

Credit to German diplomacy

Ardian Hackaj, a political analyst with the Tirana Connectivity Forum, has been following the Berlin process. He sees the platform's first tangible results as a credit to the German diplomatic offensive. "German Special Envoy Manuel Sarazzin's ongoing engagement in the region, his regular contacts with all interested parties, and a highly focused approach built on small but manageable steps have provided a mechanism that is otherwise lacking to guide local political will," Hackaj told DW.

Are the Western Balkan countries headed for EU membership?

It is extremely important to involve civil society in the Berlin Process, Hackaj added. The formats currently taking place in Berlin include three meetings at the ministerial level, and a two-day conference of representatives from civil society.

Out of a dead-end

The summit program is scheduled to end on November 3 with a signing ceremony attended by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The gesture aims to signal that Berlin has not led the Berlin Process into a dead-end, as has been criticized in recent years, said Florian Biber, director of the Center for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz.

Are the Western Balkan countries headed for EU membership?

"I think the agreements are an attempt to signal that the Berlin Process is now more focused on concrete achievements," he said, adding the process had stalled in past years. "So, it's very important to achieve some kind of success. Otherwise, it would look like business as usual".

Political alignment with the EU

Problems in the Western Balkans persist — the unstable political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, problems with EU accession negotiations with Northern Macedonia and Albania and the security concerns arising from tense relations between Serbia and Kosovo.

Are the Western Balkan countries headed for EU membership?

A particular focus lies on Serbia, not only due to the difficult past it shares with Kosovo, but also because of the pressure its receives from Brussels to align with EU foreign policy in terms of visa systems and sanctions against Russia.

Migration issues might be on the table

The increased number of refugees aling the Balkan route is not officially on the agenda of the Western Balkans Conference. However, in response to a query by DW, organizers said they could not rule out a debate on the issue.

The countries involved in the matter will be present on Thursday: Serbia, which allows people from countries like India or Tunisia to enter without avisas and continue their journey to the EU; Bosnia and Herzegovina, a transit country for migrants heading west; and EU-member Croatia, which is seeking to join the Schengen area next year and has come under fire for its practice of illegal pushbacks.

Provided by Deutsche Welle

Focus on creating a common market

Creating a common regional market for the six Western Balkan states is at the heart of the Berlin conference. The planned intergovernmental agreements are intended to help link the Western Balkans to the EU market. "The agreements can give a new dynamic to mobility in the region and to economic cooperation, making it an important contribution to the creation of a common market," said Anja Quiring of the German Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations.

Are the Western Balkan countries headed for EU membership?

It is hard to say how the agreements will be reflected in concrete terms, Quiring said, adding the importance of further harmonization at the legal and regulatory levels in the region. "In our view, the intensified intra-regional cooperation of the six Western Balkan countries can provide an important impetus for economic prosperity in the region," she said.

All those whom DW interviewed on the matter agreed that signing agreements is one thing, but implementing them on the ground is quite another.

"There have been many declarations of intent and resolutions over the past eight years, but they were often only partially implemented, because there was no one to make sure they were implemented," said Florian Bieber, arguing that often enough, the host country had an agenda of its own, and would discard previous arangements. "Success is not measured by agreements, but by what you make of them," he said.

Source: DW

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