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[EWB Interview] Esch, Brey: EU will continue to support the Berlin Process, momentum is in the hands of the region

This week, the Aspen Institute Germany and the Southeast Europe Association and supported by the German Federal Foreign Office, are organising the Western Balkans “Civil Society & Think Tank Forum I: Road to Berlin” of this year’s Berlin Process Summit. Civil Society Forum has been a part of the Berlin Process since 2015, with the Minister of State for Europe at the German Federal Foreign Office Michael Roth, stating in his opening remarks that the “Civil Society Forum is the essence of the Berlin Process”.

The 2021 summit will be hosted by the German Government, which originally launched the process in 2014. Seven years later, some important commitments of the Process have been implemented, while others are still waiting for the political will. On the other hand, the work of the civil society in the region still faces challenges.

The organisers of this year’s Civil Society Forum, Valeska Esch, Deputy Executive Director and Program Director Europe at the Aspen Institute Germany and Hansjörg Brey, Executive Director of the Southeast Europe Association, have discussed the current state and the future of the Berlin Process, as well as the role of the civil society within it, for our portal.

European Western Balkans: This year, the Berlin Process is “returning home”, i. e. it is organised by the German Government for the first time since 2014, when it was launched. What do you see as the most important contributions of the Process to the region in the past seven years?

Valeska Esch: The most important contribution of the Berlin Process in my view was putting regional cooperation at the center of the agenda – be it in questions of infrastructure, economy, or relations between societies. Regional cooperation is essential for all countries of the Western Balkans, just as European cooperation is essential for the whole of Europe. In today’s interconnected world, it is a mistake to believe that nationalist agendas are for the benefit of any country, no matter its size, and certainly even more so for small European countries. There are also a series of concrete achievements, such as RYCO, the roaming agreement, and many other decisions taken by leaders involved, including the Common Regional Market or the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans, or on issues such as reconciliation and the recognition of each other’s documents. All of these agreements will go a long way to improve the living conditions for people in the region if they are implemented with priority and if governments across the region follow through on the commitments they have made throughout the process. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case, limiting the concrete outcomes of the process.

Another important contribution in my view is that of civil society. There is such a vibrant and engaged civil society across the Western Balkans which has an important voice and role to play in the development of their countries. It therefore really is a great pleasure for us to have the opportunity to host the Civil Society and Think Tank Forum this year.

EWB: Civil Society Forum will feature workshops with various CSOs from the region, which will present their conclusions ahead of the Summit. How do you assess the level of influence of civil society on the policy-makers within the Berlin Process, and what is your assessment about this influence in the Western Balkans in general?

Hansjörg Brey: The chance given to the CSO community from the region to present their recommendations at various high-level political meetings including the Berlin Summit is a reflection of the fact that the organizers of the Berlin Process highly value the role of CSOs in shaping the future of the WB societies. The criticism that much of this remains symbolism, as politicians after listening to the voices of the CSOs do not necessarily act, is also true. As a matter of fact, civil society is too often excluded from decision-making in the political systems of the Western Balkans. But this is exactly because it is civil society that tries to prevent ongoing state capture, authoritarian tendencies, or suffocation from bad air. Trying to give CSO actors a stronger voice and power is, therefore, an approach that is without alternative. The Civil Society and Think Tank Forum is a great platform for this, but consultation with civil society organizations should be part of political processes in general.

EWB: Topics of this year’s Civil Society Forum are familiar to the followers of the Berlin Process: green agenda, reconciliation, connectivity, democracy… Is any one of them specifically important at this point in time, and why is that the case?

Hansjörg Brey: Indeed, some of the topics discussed are familiar to the participants of earlier Berlin Process meetings. This is because some of the issues remain tremendously relevant in an atmosphere of ongoing social polarization, of state and media capture, and of deficient infrastructures. We nevertheless highlight some additional topics, like the social inclusion of minorities and specifically of the Roma population. There a three Working Groups designated to the Green Agenda: This takes into consideration the new approach of European politics to give an answer to the threat of global warming, as reflected by the Green Deal. There is new and enhanced commitment to climate protection and decarbonization in the region with the so-called Sofia declaration; There are many concrete issues that need the engagement of CSOs, in putting pressure to politics and in raising public awareness. Coal phase-out and transition to renewable energy sources, making agriculture more sustainable, preserving the wealth of high biodiversity as an important asset in the region.

EWB: There has been an impression that the Berlin Process has lost some of its momentum in recent years, which was also, of course, partially caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you see the future of the Process?

Valeska Esch: I believe the momentum of the process largely has been in the hands of governments in the region. There are so many commitments on the table as a result of the Berlin Process that should be implemented in full. Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic not only prevents an in-person summit for the second year in a row, but is also putting a lot of strain on all countries, their capacities, resources, etc. However, the Berlin Process also provides opportunities for the aftermath of the pandemic such as the idea of a greener recovery, strengthening economic recovery based on increased regional cooperation, and possible opportunities of near-shoring of European business to the Western Balkans. But all of this also requires governments to make use of these opportunities. Progress will not come from summit declarations and commitments but from their implementation. And on the future of the Berlin Process: whatever shape it might specifically take, I am sure it will not change the support coming from the EU and its member states to the Berlin Process projects. Either way, it would certainly be very welcome to see more regional ownership and political will to follow through on the commitments made.

EWB: Do you believe that the “return” of the Berlin Process to Germany means that there will be more attention from Berlin to the Western Balkans in the future?

Valeska Esch: I believe there has been quite a degree of attention from Berlin to the Western Balkans also in the past, not only in the framework of the Berlin Process: Berlin has been highly supportive of the EU enlargement agenda, has had an in my view remarkable focus on the region as part of its EU Council Presidency considering the circumstances of crisis under which it took place – unfortunately not with the desired outcomes regarding the first intergovernmental conferences for Albania and North Macedonia or visa liberalisation for Kosovo. However, this was not over lack of attention coming from Berlin, but over lack of consensus in the Council, which is a situation the EU unfortunately has been suffering from more and more lately and this problem goes far beyond issues related to enlargement. Germany will go to parliamentary elections in September so it remains to be seen how a future German government will look like. However, I am convinced that whatever governing coalition and Chancellor Germany will have, the Western Balkans can expect to remain important to Berlin as it is in Germany’s own interest to continue the European integration of the entire region, and we as organizers and Civil Society Organizations dealing with the region will invest a maximum of energy in order to keep the WB high on the agenda.

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