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Interviews

[EWB Interview] Hackaj: Paradoxically, the challenges in the Western Balkans remain in bilateral cooperation, not in the regional one

This weekend, Tirana hosts the Civil Society and Think Tank Forum of the Western Balkans, which will be followed by the leader’s summit of the Berlin Process on Monday. It is the first time since the Berlin Process was launched in 2014 that a summit is taking place in a Western Balkan country, which, according to Ardian Hackaj, is an opportunity for the region to show political commitment to this initiative.

Hackaj, Research Director of the Cooperation and Development Institute, one of the co-organizers of the Civil Society Forum, highlights the added value of the Berlin Process to the region, pointing to the example of Kosovo and Serbia. Despite their deteriorating bilateral relations, he says, both countries are implementing the three Mobility Agreements – on mutual recognition of identity cards, university degrees, and professional qualifications – signed in Berlin last year.

Berlin Process was established nine years ago as a way to improve regional cooperation in the Western Balkans and bring it closer to EU standards. Civil Society Forum was established one year later. With the voices supportive of the EU enlargement getting stronger, both processes, Hackaj believes, will remain relevant for the keeping the development of the region on “EU rails”.

European Western Balkans: What are the current priorities of the Berlin Process and how committed would you say are the governments of the Western Balkans to achieving them?

Ardian Hackaj: High up in the list of priorities in 2023 are the implementation of the Green Agenda; acceleration of regional integration at the service of WB6 – EU convergence; stronger focus on integrated border management and better coordination on migration management; speeding up WB6 advance towards EU membership, and intensifying any tangible contribution to reconciliation.

Concrete outcomes would be the signature of new Common Regional Market agreements that are technically ready (especially those prepared under CEFTA remit); the completion of the ratification process of three Mobility Agreements signed last year in Berlin (which Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro have not completed it yet) and their smooth implementation through the establishment and functioning of Joint Commissions and Working Groups.

EWB: How do you interpret the fact that Albania is hosting the first Berlin Process in the region of the Western Balkans, just like it hosted the first EU-Western Balkans Summit last year?

AH: It is a very good development for Albania and a very good opportunity for the region to be able to show political commitment to the Berlin Process and high professionalism in organizing such a complex high-level event. But it is also a litmus test of the capacity and will of the Western Balkans political elite to host and/or sit at similar policy-making tables together with their EU colleagues and debate, reach an agreement, and implement it.

EWB: The Summit in Tirana on 16 October will be preceded by the Civil Society Forum, which has also been a regular feature of the Berlin Process. How successful has the civil society been in influencing the process?

AH: Through the Berlin Process, civil society has found a unique forum to reach critical mass, to voice its demands, and consequently to increase its degree of involvement in policy debates impacting regional cooperation, connectivity agenda, and Enlargement in general. The next step for CSOs is to increase their knowledge of different sector policies and of respective policy-making mechanisms so as to be able to effectively use them beyond the watchdog function.

EWB: There are seven topics of this year’s Civil Society Forum. Do they differ in terms of the level of regional cooperation between the governments? In which area would you say there is the best level of cooperation, and which remains the most challenging?

AH: The best level of cooperation is in the sectors covered by a regional cooperation structure: Regional Cooperation Council and CEFTA for Common Regional Market; Energy Community for Energy, Transport Community for Transport, Regional School of Public Administration for administrative capacity building, or Regional Youth Cooperation Office. I should add that non-governmental cooperation platforms such as Connecting Youth play a very important role, for example, as they complement government cooperation with a bottom-up approach. Paradoxically, the challenges remain in bilateral cooperation, not in the regional one. Suffice it to see that notwithstanding the blockage of the Serbia – Kosovo dialogue, both countries are implementing the three Mobility Agreements signed in Berlin last year. This shows the real added value of the Berlin Process.

EWB: The topics “Access to the EU Single Market” and “Politics of Enlargement” are dealt with separately. Does this reflect the expectation that there will be some form of phased accession to the EU, for which there is an increasing number of advocates? What form do you think would be the best for the Western Balkans?

AH: This reflects the large scope of the Tirana Civil Society Forum: it includes both the political debate and the policy-making specifics. At the political level it is the political will that takes center stage, while in the Single Market Working Group, there are the specifics of a certain scenario that are discussed and debated. However, it remains that Single Market access is extremely difficult to achieve in practice as on top of the adoption of the acquis, it requires Balkans institutions to function at the same level of good governance standards as those of member states. Moreover, member states will be extremely vigilant about any infringement coming from the region that may harm their national interests. Finally, the current EU system of market surveillance and enforcement must be overhauled to respond to the eventual inclusion of six new countries.

EWB: The topics of the Civil Society Forum include digitalization and the Green Deal, which are also among the main policy priorities on the EU level. Can the Western Balkans catch up with the Union in these areas?

AH: They can catch up only if supported properly and significantly by the EU. The very nature of those policies is based on huge investments mostly in infrastructure – EU countries receive billions every year. Hence for the South East Europe to catch up without proper EU support and access to cohesion funds, this catching-up scenario is not realistic. At CDI, we strongly support the development-based scenario that allows earlier access of Western Balkans region to EU Cohesion policies.

EWB: How do you see the future of the Berlin Process and the Civil Society Forum? The EU seems to be seriously considering enlargement once again, though it remains to be seen what the dynamic will be. If, however, it remains high on the EU agenda, what would that mean for the Berlin Process?

AH: The Berlin Process contributes to Enlargement through political will that comes from Member States and from Western Balkans countries focused on issues of systemic importance to both EU and WB6 such as regional cooperation, development, green transition, connectivity, market convergence, etc. All those elements tangibly contribute to Western Balkans development, hence the convergence of the region with the EU. Whatever form the Enlargement will take, Berlin Process political push and on-the-ground support would be necessary to keep this development on the EU rails.

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