*Op-ed by Florent Marciacq, Deputy Secretary General of the Austro-French Centre for Rapprochement in Europe (CFA), which will co-organize the panel “Western Balkans in a Brexiting EU” on the Belgrade Security Forum 2017. This op-ed presents the views of the author, not of his organisations.

The Berlin process has been launched in 2014 to support the EU’s enlargement policy and further “additional real progress” in the Western Balkans (according to the 2014 Berlin Declaration).

Three years later, a first assessment of its achievements is rather positive. Against the backdrop of the Juncker Declaration of 2014, Brexit and growing geopolitical challenges, the Berlin process has signalled that the EU remains a strategic player in the region, and that its interest in enlargement has not faded away. The recent Juncker-bis Declaration about a possible enlargement of the EU by 2025 is the indication that the Berlin Process has brought enlargement back on the EU’s agenda.

More substantively, the Berlin process has boosted up the interest of WB6 and EU stakeholders for regional cooperation, through its support for the EU’s Connectivity Agenda, Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO), Civil Society Forum (CSF), WB Reflection Forum, or the establishment of the WB Chambers Investment Forum.

But are these achievements commensurate with the challenges the EU faces in the region? In infrastructure connectivity, the ambitions of the Berlin process intersect with China’s rising (and heavily funded) economic diplomacy in the region. In good neighbourly relations matters, they create a commitment that has proved rather weak and not applicable to EU neighbouring states. Meanwhile, stabilocratic tendencies remain strong and economic convergence at best feeble. Promising as it is, the Berlin Process has not been a game-changer. As for the Berlin Plus formula, it will be more of the same.

To make the Berlin process a game-changer and actually further “additional real” progress, the Berlin Process needs to be more ambitious than merely supporting the enlargement policy, its flaws and inadequacies. After London, it should focus on resisting the siren call of resuming “business as usual”, a move that would barely be justifiable and at best illusory. Twenty years of enlargement policy have not produced results that would augur well for the future and the EU currently undergoes major systemic changes (with the re-nationalisation of its enlargement policy) that are a growing source of unpredictability.

As a matter of fact, rather than being a temporary brace for the EU’s enlargement policy, the Berlin process should be seen as opening new avenues.

First, its emphasis on regional cooperation could pave the way for developing a regionalised approach more amenable to collective engagement, enhanced cooperation, solidarity and trust than the “regatta” approach hitherto promoted by the EU. In fragile, economically vulnerable, post-conflict contexts, constructive competition cannot be the leitmotiv guiding the EU in the development of its differentiated relations with WB6 countries. Framing enlargement as a regional (vs. national) project (by offering more regional policies, grouping accession prospects and regionalising enlargement frameworks) would add value to WB6 endeavour towards reconciliation and regional development and keep the map of Europe free of black holes.

Secondly, building on the Berlin process, the EU’s approach should allow wider participation of WB6 countries in EU processes and funds – and not only after validation of accession preconditions. Keeping WB6 leaders busy is important, but even more important is to blur the divide between membership and non-membership through pre-accession participation. To mitigate the risks that may arise from a more differentiated pattern of vertical integration, post-accession conditionality tools as well as post-membership conditionality tools should be further developed and applied with consistency on a set of core values identified as defining European identity.

Finally, the Berlin Process shows that enlargement, rather than being a technical box-ticking process, is a political battle. Embracing the politicisation of enlargement as a new reality could and should be a source of constructive cleavages in WB6 politics – beyond the simplistic Europhile vs. Eurosceptical divide. Viewing enlargement as a regional rather than national project could be one these constructive cleavages. Transnational mobilisation along such lines, questioning the EU’s approach while supporting European integration, are necessary to divert WB6 (and EU) citizens from ethnopolitics and advance togetherness. The role of civil society and transnational networks is essential here, as is the capacity of the EU to recover its power to inspire.