The Berlin Process continued in 2022 with a series of events in Berlin in the week from 31 October to 4 November. Besides the meeting of heads of governments which brought three important agreements, the Civil Society and Think Tank Forum and the Western Balkan Youth Forum have also taken place in the German capital. We talked to Manuel Sarrazin, special representative of the German government for the Western Balkans, about the role of the Berlin Process for EU accession, the important of youth engagement through the Youth Forum, as well as the obstacles to EU enlargement in the region.
European Western Balkans: We are now here in Berlin where the Berlin Process Summit takes place this week, as well as other side events such as the Civil Society Forum and the Western Balkans Youth Forum. How do you see the importance of the Berlin Process at the moment for EU enlargement in the Western Balkans? Is it something that is helping the process?
Manuel Sarrazin: This is the aim of the Berlin Process. The whole idea of the Berlin Process initiated by Chancellor Merkel has always been that it should be helping and facilitating EU enlargement. This is the grand idea. All my daily work, all of Germany’s efforts are going into the same direction.
EWB: There are those who thought about the Berlin Process as a replacement for enlargement at the time when enlargement was put to a halt or did not seem to have a pretty clear perspective. Do you see that this criticism is founded?
MS: I think it has never been founded. Germany’s position has always been clear: we want the full membership of all six Western Balkan countries in the EU. And the Berlin Process shall help organize a framework for getting things done in regional cooperation, which is a step towards membership, and bringing concrete and tangible results to the citizens of the region.
The DNA of the Berlin Process has always been to be inclusive, treating all six countries the same way, and to always act in line with the acquis and the integration into the European Union. Our government is really clear and vocal on the endgame, which is full membership of all six Western Balkan states in the European Union on an eye level and with the same rights and obligations.
EWB: Do you believe that this year, given the changing global circumstances, primarily the war in Ukraine, there is now more political will among member states to push more seriously for enlargement?
MS: For the German government there was always huge political will to push for enlargement. In general, this hasn’t changed, but I think that it’s more clear and more urgent to see why it was and why it is the right path. At least for Germany I can say that there is perhaps not more political will, but we feel recommitted, and we believe it is now even more important than before.
EWB: We hear that the EU member states representatives and European Commission representatives are quite vocal about the importance of enlargement now due to security threats. But at the same time, we see that all the problems that hampered enlargement before are still there, from bilateral disputes to the rule of law problems. How do we go around it, and how does this political will translate into results?
MS: There can be ideas about adjustments in approaches, making more use of the intermediate steps that are to a certain extent already included in the current methodology. But in general, I don’t see a better way than having accession talks which should be based on reforms in the countries. I have been following the debate about membership models and enlargement models for 25 years, and I still haven’t found anything better in all the debates than full membership.
Let’s not talk down projects which that are working on proposals how to make this process even better, but let’s not question that the process has been the most successful geopolitical instrument the EU has ever had. And let’s stick also to the main principle, which is that all members are equal in the EU as an end goal.
Tomorrow (on 3 November) you will see that we are getting a major breakthrough regarding regional cooperation, a major signal that energy solidarity in the region can be organized together with the EU, not with other actors. I think that this is also helpful to restore faith in the enlargement process. And of course, the EU has to deliver on topics such as visa liberalization for Kosovo, and the region has to deliver in reforms and solving bilateral or other conflicts.
EWB: But unfortunately, in recent years we have seen that this framework has not delivered the results that we all expected. Do you believe that there should be improvements to the process in the technical sense? Should there be a different approach from the EU in terms of exercising pressure when it’s necessary, where it’s necessary?
MS: You need political will, and I think that this German government is clearly stating its political will, perhaps even more strongly and with more engagement than the previous government. This is of course causing positive pressure on the region to also show political will. And I think this is it. If you don’t want something, if you’re not able to converge it into political will, the best procedures will not help. But of course, if you have political will, you still need good procedures.
EWB: Going back to the Berlin Process, we will have three major agreements signed this week. What is, in your opinion, the relation between the Berlin Process with the Common Regional Market and the Open Balkan initiative? Do you believe that these two processes can be complementary, or they’re in a way a competition to one another?
MS: The principles of the Common Regional Market and the Berlin Process are clear: inclusivity and alignment with European acquis. This is why I believe the Common Regional Market will bring the biggest benefit to the region, economically, but also regarding cohesion with the European Single Market. Within this framework, all other ideas, all other formats can be also helpful. And it does not mean that countries that are part of the Common Regional Market cannot choose to advance further in smaller formats on certain issues.
EWB: Do you think that maybe this insisting on a parallel process is undermining the Common Regional Market in terms of all the attention from the institutions, the public, etc?
MS: I think resources are an important aspect. This is also why it is very important to have organizations such as the Regional Cooperation Council and CEFTA with their expertise and resources engaged in the Common Regional Market.
EWB: You have taken part in the Western Balkans Youth forum, which is happening as a side event of the Berlin Process. How do you see the importance of giving youth a voice within the Berlin Process? Do you believe this is something that can contribute to the process and its goals?
MS: Yes, but of course we can get even better in that. It’s great that we have the Youth Forum taking place and RYCO (Regional Youth Cooperation Office) is an important part of the Berlin Process. But I think, of course, the procedures to really get the youngsters having a say and being able to ask for more power are not perfect yet.
Youth cooperation is one of the most important outcomes of the Berlin process, as well as regional cooperation and the four freedoms of the Common Market. And we should, of course, think about ways how youngsters’ voices can become more decisive also in decision-making processes.
EWB: How do you comment on recent rumors that due to its non-alignment with EU sanctions against Russia, Serbia could be punished in terms of not only stopping the EU accession process in practice as it happens at the moment, but also formally suspending accession negotiations or even reintroducing the visa regime?
MS: Everybody knows that we expect the Serbian government to align with the European common foreign and security policy. This is an obligation deriving from the Stability and Association Agreement and Serbia’s goal of EU membership.
EWB: We have seen in the last couple of years lots of special representatives for the Western Balkans designated by the EU, by the United States, and then later by several EU member states. Is your work coordinated to a certain degree, at least when it comes to some of the vital processes such as the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue?
MS: Yes, we coordinate. For the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue it is clear to all of us that Miroslav Lajčak is in charge. He is the EU special representative, he is facilitating the dialogue and we all have repeatedly expressed our support for him and his work. He is the boss on this issue and whatever I do or what the other envoys are doing we do to support him. I think that there is good cooperation between us and that it’s not easy to divide us.
EWB: There seem to be two opposing views on such a large number of special representatives. On the one hand, there are those who say this is evidence of the importance of the region since all these countries have a person responsible for dealing with the region. On the other hand, there are those who say this is evidence of the low importance of the region since now it’s being given to specific persons inside the administration. How do you see this?
MS: For Germany it’s the ultimate proof that the Western Balkans are very important for this government. (German Foreign Minister) Annalena Baerbock really wants the region to move forward.