Western Balkans sign Landmark Agreements in Berlin

Western Balkan Six leaders signed three agreements under the Berlin Process on Thursday (3 November), sending positive signals ahead of a crucial Western Balkan summit set to take place in Albania in December.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the EU’s top officials – Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel – joined leaders from Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania for the Berlin Process Summit.

“Europe without the Western Balkans is not complete, and the countries of the region should have confidence in the Berlin process,” Scholz, who hosted the gathering, said.

The format, initiated in 2014 under former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, aims to foster rapprochement between the six Western Balkan states and selected EU countries and promote the integration between the states in the region. 

Scholz said that the six Western Balkans countries “belong to the free and democratic part of Europe, ” highlighting the need to deliver on their long-standing desire to join the EU.

In their joint communiqué, participants agreed to hold the next Berlin Process summit 2023 in Albania. The country will also host the upcoming Western Balkan Summit on 9 December 2022.

More mobility

After two years of intense negotiations, the six countries reached agreements that will facilitate citizens’ free movement throughout the region and the mutual recognition of the professional qualifications of doctors, dentists and architects. Currently, getting such documents recognised can cost holders up to €500. 

The deals are not only considered a breakthrough for regional integration but carry particular weight in the context of ongoing tensions between Belgrade and Pristina.

Minor incidents have been reported at the border between the two countries over the last few days as Pristina starts to roll out a law requiring all citizens to have Kosovo license plates, impacting ethnic Serbs in the north who insist on retaining those issued before Kosovo’s independence.

Scholz said he hopes that the new deal on mutual recognition will pave the way for further conciliation between the two countries. 

“It is time to overcome regional conflicts, which have kept you divided for a long time, and the process of normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia must be accelerated,” Scholz added.

The chancellor said that Russia’s war in Ukraine has made resolution even more necessary “to preserve Europe’s freedom and security” as otherwise, it could “divide you and hold your countries back on your way to Europe.”

No progress on EU visa liberalisation for Kosovo

The deal was reached only a few weeks after a Franco-German non-paper on the normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia was leaked by several media in the Western Balkans. 

While 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 recognising, Kosovo’s independence while getting financial benefits and the prospect of EU membership in return.

Speaking in Berlin, Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama praised Scholz for his role in the negotiations of the three agreements.

“I can’t help but emphasise that these agreements were three agreements that we had been looking forward to for two or three years; they were blocked,” Rama said.

Towards Tirana

In a reference to EU enlargement, Rama also said countries in the region finally feel they are not left alone.

European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen’s recent tour of some Western Balkan countries brought important financial support beyond mere words of solidarity, Rama added, referencing the €80 million earmarked for energy investment in his country.

His comments come as, largely due to Russia’s war in Ukraine, the EU’s enlargement process has suddenly been resuscitated after almost a decade of stagnation.

For the EU, enlargement is no longer a one-way street

Last week, the EU’s executive announced a €500 million energy support package for the region as rising energy prices triggered by Russia’s war and the onset of winter send shockwaves through European economies already battling rising inflation.

“The EU continues to stand behind the Western Balkans – both in good times and in hardship,” Von der Leyen said in Berlin.

“We are investing in the economic fabric of the region to advance in the clean energy transition and come out greener, stronger and more sustainable from the current crisis,” she added.

For Berlin, advancing EU enlargement “has a new urgency due to the Ukraine war and new geopolitical upheavals,” a senior German government official said. 

At the same time, enhancing regional cooperation is key to countering Russia’s influence in the region, European diplomats said in recent weeks.

“Russia’s strategy has been to manipulate the rifts in the Western Balkans. We would like to counter this. We would like to enhance cooperation among these countries. And we would like to bring them closer to the EU,” a senior German diplomat said on condition of anonymity.