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[EWB Interview] Dobrushi: The 2030 target is not just realistic, but a must for the EU and the Western Balkans

The 2030 opportunity is indispensable for both the EU and the Western Balkans, and the enlargement process is crucial for ensuring stability in the region, says Andi Dobrushi, Western Balkans Director at the Open Society Foundations (OSF) in an interview for our portal.

OSF, together with the Cooperation and Development Institute from Tirana and the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy from Athens, is the organizer of this year’s Civil Society and Think Thank Forum (CSF), which takes place this week in the capital of Albania. It is a part of the Berlin Process, which will also gather regional leaders in Tirana on Monday.

According to Dobrushi, in recent years CSOs have provided crucial expertise and talent to the governments across the region. This year’s CSF covers topics such as enlargement, access to EU single market, security and green energy. We discussed these issues with Mr Dobrushi ahead of the Forum.

European Western Balkans: This year’s Civil Society Forum in Tirana is held as a part of the Berlin Process Summit, which for the first time since its launch in 2014 is taking place in a Western Balkan country. In which ways is the Berlin Process currently benefiting the Western Balkans?

Andi Dobrushi: Indeed, it is a remarkable moment as Tirana gets ready to host the Leaders’ Summit of the Berlin Process in the Western Balkans, coinciding with the 9th anniversary of this initiative. It almost brings home a real sense of belonging to the big European family. It is happening at a time when the world is struggling to cope with a long menu of global challenges, politics are undergoing substantial changes, Russian aggression in Ukraine continues unabated, compounded now by a serious conflict in the Middle East. Our region is not immune to these transnational peace and stability challenges or the global economic crisis, hence bringing the Berlin Process to the Western Balkans is an important sign, which beyond its symbolics, demonstrates a mutual commitment of Western Balkan and EU towards integration and reform-oriented progress. It is essential for the future of our countries how they read the signs of time.

EWB: When the Berlin Process was launched, it was described as a way for the Western Balkans to get closer to the EU at a time when the future of the enlargement seemed uncertain. Now, we have initiatives to get both the EU and the candidate countries ready for enlargement by 2030. How realistic do you find this target?

AD: We have been told for a long time that it’s the journey that matters, not the destination. The road has been long and bumpy, but the will and objective of the people in the region is not to get closer, but to have a concrete plan which finally anchors us in the EU family. What is realistic at this moment, is the realization of the WB that this opportunity is indispensable, and the reckoning on the side of the EU that enlargement is crucial to ensure security and stability in Europe. With both sides aware of the costs of non-enlargement, this target is not just realistic, but a must. So, we must focus the discussion to address and overcome the challenges on the European path and not if the goal is attainable. There have been recent relevant contributions, such as the Franco-German Proposal or the viable forms of staged accession.

What is realistic at this moment, is the realization of the WB that this opportunity is indispensable.

EWB: Civil Society Forum is an opportunity for the CSOs and think tanks to provide recommendations to the decision-makers in the national governments and the EU. How would you describe the current cooperation between these institutions and the civil society? Can CSOs influence the decision-making process?

AD: The CSF assembles an impressive number of WB and European organizations, Think Tanks, experts, and members of civil service from the governments in the region and beyond. It has an ambitious agenda that brings a variety of different perspectives, relevant to the issues our region is facing.

Civil society has consistently played a pivotal role in driving reform in the region through active engagement, watchdog functions, research, and advocacy efforts. This undeniable contribution has often been the catalyst for positive change in the region. Recently, think tanks from the region and the EU have championed the concept of staged accession, gaining significant attention and serious consideration within the EU as a viable solution to the stalled enlargement process.

Furthermore, civil society organizations possess a wealth of human capital within their ranks. For instance, in 2016, during North Macedonia’s democratic institution-building phase, CSOs provided crucial expertise and talent to the government, a trend observed in Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, and other countries. This highlights the evolving role of CSOs as decision-makers themselves.

The consistent support for organizing the Civil Society and Think Tank Forum since 2015, along with ongoing backing for CSF over the past nine years, underscores the commitment of EU member states and the EU itself to provide the region’s civil society with an advocacy platform for one of the most critical regional initiatives. This demonstrates the essential role of civil society in driving progress.

Civil Society Forum in Poznan 2019; Photo: EWB

EWB: At the time of the interview, the tensions between Serbia and Kosovo are very high due to the Banjska attack. Regional security is one of the thematic parts of the CSF. In which way should the international community ensure peace and stability in the Western Balkans, especially after recent events?

AD: The reenergized enlargement process and the heightened attention of EU on making enlargement work is already a step towards ensuring stability and contributing to peace, however, there must be concrete actions that bring back credibility to the process. Opening negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, candidate status for BiH and visa liberalization for Kosovo are steps in the right direction. Unfortunately, these positive developments have not brought about the effects the EU was hoping, as membership still seems unrealistic to the people in the region.

The credibility of the process, despite the many recent promises, such as 2030, is on glass legs. While EU remains the preferred option for the people in the region, trust that integration will happen has waned in recent years, while in Serbia EU is not the main player in town anymore. To break the pattern of conflict and reinitiate talks between Kosovo and Serbia, the European Union must answer what level of significance does the prospect of European Union integration hold for the everyday life of people in Northern Kosovo or everywhere in the region for that matter.

To break the pattern of conflict, the European Union must answer what level of significance does the prospect of integration hold for the everyday life of people.

At this moment, is it crucial for the EU to acknowledge the urgency of the situation and offer not just a table for negotiations, but a viable proposal for both Serbia and Kosovo. It is crucial to offer substantial commitments during these discussions. In a time where maintaining peace is paramount, minor, inconsequential adjustments that lack credibility are insufficient.

EWB: Do you think that the issues such as environment and energy transition, which will also be discussed during the CSF, are receiving less attention than they deserve in the region? What can be done to further raise their visibility and awareness about them?

AD: The Green Agenda and Energy Transition are foundational pillars in the European Union’s engagement with the Western Balkan countries, particularly as they navigate the intricate process of EU integration. Regrettably, for a significant duration, leaders in the region failed to establish a meaningful connection between their European integration efforts and progress in environmental sustainability and energy transition. This failure to address these two critical issues has become increasingly conspicuous in recent times, exacerbated by the energy crisis triggered by the conflict in Ukraine and the devastating natural disasters that have swept through the region.

The Western Balkan Six have limited administrative capacity, only moderate levels of transposition of EU environmental regulations, and early-stage implementation. Furthermore, the Western Balkans remain heavily dependent on fossil fuels. In 2022, more than 30% of electricity production was derived from a single fossil fuel source, namely coal, which accounts for nearly 50% of the entire primary energy supply of the Western Balkans.

The crux of the issue does not lie in lack of visibility or awareness but rather in the scarcity of resources. There is an ever-increasing need for substantial financial resources to alleviate the mounting fiscal pressures on national budgets throughout the accession process. To bridge this gap, it is imperative to make substantial and rapid investments in the environmental and climate change sectors. In the realm of energy, a more resolute and decisive approach is essential to shift away from fossil fuels and adhere to the international obligations undertaken in the previous decade. Moreover, there must be a concerted focus on upholding the rule of law and human rights, including the imperative need to extend and revise the Treaty Establishing the Energy Community. This entails exerting pressure for a just and inclusive energy transition.

The crux of the issue of energy transition does not lie in lack of visibility or awareness but rather in the scarcity of resources

Western Balkan countries find themselves highly exposed to energy security risks, the impacts of climate change, and the dire consequences of harmful emissions stemming from fossil fuel combustion. They also grapple with the persistent challenge of energy poverty, alongside alarmingly high levels of pollution. Investment in these areas is not merely beneficial but imperative for the sustainable future of the region.

EWB: In addition to Berlin Process, another initiative that has been promoted by Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia in recent years has been the Open Balkan. It seems that now it has lost political momentum, at least in Albania. Has this initiative always been complementary to the Berlin Process, as its leaders claimed, and can the forms of cooperation that were started within OB be continued through the Berlin Process, if the former initiative is not functional anymore?

AD: Our stance has always been very clear – the two initiatives are complementary, and it is wrong to consider them to be in some form of collision. To quote our Chair of the Board, Alex Soros, “the Open Balkans could become part of the Berlin Process, although there may be no need to formalize such agreement.” Research conducted by our partners has highlighted that OBI activities have a direct or indirect connection to 15 out of the 33 negotiating chapters and are pertinent to five out of the six clusters. This indicates that OBI has a broader scope that extends beyond merely the four freedoms, while still aligning with the EU acquis. Nonetheless, we believe that in the long run, simplifying regional economic cooperation could prove to be a more cost-effective approach. While the initiative reflects the agency and commitment of the leaders of Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia to help in the process of European integration, Berlin Process holds the advantage of having the unanimous support of all WB6 countries and enjoys backing from institutional frameworks such as the RCC, WBCIF6, WBIF, RYCO, and the potential for linkage with EU funding. Fundamentally, every regional initiative that serves as a platform that actively promotes political trust, mutual understanding, and facilitates the resolution of long-term disputes, plays a crucial role in advancing progress within the region.

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