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Cautious optimism about the Berlin Process and EU enlargement at the closing of the 2023 Civil Society Forum

Closing Forum, CSF 2023; Photo: X / @csf_wb

TIRANA – The closing event of the Civil Society Forum 2023 took stock of the EU enlargement and Berlin Process. The speakers expressed cautious optimism about the enlargement and assessed the Berlin Process as, at least a moderate, success. It was stressed that re-energizing enlargement would move the Berlin Process forward as well.

The keynote speech was delivered by Michael Roth, Chair of the German Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee. According to Roth, the EU’s future policy towards the candidate countries in East and Southeast Europe will demonstrate its willingness to take more responsibility for freedom, democracy, and stability on the continent.

“Russia’s war in Ukraine has woken the EU from its geopolitical slumber. The EU has rediscovered one of its most successful policies – enlargement”, Roth said.

He added that the stabilization and integration of the candidates in both the East and Southeast is in the interest of the EU and warned that nationalist tensions are on the rise in the region, which was seen at the border between Serbia and Kosovo and elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Roth stressed that the enlargement process has to be reformed and that the citizens in the candidate countries need to benefit from the initial phases of the accession process.

To this end, he proposed six measures. Candidate countries that meet sufficient criteria, according to Roth, should be able to regularly participate in meetings of the European Council and formations of the Council of the EU. The candidates should also be gradually included in the specific policies of the EU, such as energy, infrastructure and single market, while financial aid mechanisms need to be strengthened.

Roth also proposed increasing the role of pro-EU civil society, for example, through compulsory consultation on certain issues. Current EU member states should sponsor the candidates and provide them with technical assistance on their EU accession path. Finally, a qualified majority vote instead of unanimity should be introduced in the Council when it comes to the intermediary steps of the accession.

“These reforms will result in the incremental accession process making the goal more attractive without undermining strict criteria”, Roth said.

Bojan Marichikj, Deputy Prime Minister of North Macedonia in charge of European Affairs, commended what Roth said during the panel discussion.

“There has been a serious change in the last few months, particularly since the GLOBSEC forum. After a long time, there is serious, substantial content on EU enlargement. And this is a change that we can commend as candidate countries”, Marichikj said.

He stressed that the process has already been reformed in recent years, due to the introduction of the new methodology, and that difference can be felt by North Macedonia.

“We have already been asked what we can do within multiple chapters in terms of cooperation with the EU before accession”, Marichikj said.

The legacy of this Commission, according to Marachikj should be to make the agenda for enlargement by 2030, which would not mean anything for granted, but provide the chance for the candidates to join if they meet all the criteria.

“The end of this year and the beginning of next should be the time for that because it will take much more time if it is left to the next Commission”, Deputy Prime Minister said.

Later in the panel, he said that even in the enlargement-skeptic countries, such as Denmark, they are now discussing it.

“If, in Copenhagen, they are speaking about enlargement, we should seize this opportunity. We will not have another one”, Marichikj said.

Participants of the panel also reflected on the legacy and the future of the Berlin Process.

Ardian HackajResearch Director of the CDI, pointed out that the Berlin Process had no institutions, no budget, and no legislative power, but it had become a comprehensive platform of willing participants, which shows the importance of political will. Hedvig Morvai, Program Director at the ERSTE Foundation, stressed the importance of political leaders who are enthusiastic to meet and sit together, which makes the Berlin Process so much more successful compared to more than 60 regional initiatives.

Valeska Esch, Senior Advisor to the German Government Special Representative for the Countries of the Western Balkans, stressed that the Berlin Process was never meant as a replacement for the EU agenda.

She added that progress could be faster, pointing out that it was possible to sign the first three agreements of the Common Regional Market even earlier. However, she also noted that the Berlin Process has launched very important initiatives, for example in energy transitions and youth cooperation.

Marta Szpala, Senior Fellow at the Center for Eastern Studies, said that the region cannot move forward with the Berlin Process when the main process – enlargement – is not delivering.

“We had many talks at the Civil Society Forum about the rule of law, security issues, and lack of trust, and this is not the job of the Berlin Process to fix, it is the task of the EU enlargement process”, she said.

According to Szpala, the Berlin Process was always supplementary to enlargement and the focus on enlargement is needed to move the Berlin Process forward as well.

Liza Gashi, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and Diaspora of Kosovo said that the Berlin Process has been beneficial for her because it provides equal footing and reciprocity, which is important because there is still a country in the neighborhood, Serbia, that is not recognizing Kosovo and that has, according to Gashi, inspired and organized an attack against it on 24 September.

“We’ve had moderate success in the Berlin Process and we need to cheer that moderate success. After the September 24 attack, everything has changed for Kosova, also in terms of regional cooperation”, Gashi said.

She said that there has been the process of appeasement of Serbia, but that the concessions have made it aggressive and assertive.

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