If European history, especially in the past seven decades, has taught us anything, it is that peace and reconciliation will not happen until people truly get to know each other and develop a basic dialogue that leads to tolerance, understanding, mutual respect and respect for ethnic and national differences.
Since the first conference on the Western Balkans under the auspices of the so-called Berlin Process, took place in the summer of 2014, the circumstances in which Europe finds itself have changed significantly. The years behind us have shown that the certainties that have been considered absolute for decades have suddenly been called into question. “Eternal peace on European soil” and “Europe without alternatives” are no longer valid. Undoubtedly, the Western Balkans is not currently at the top of the EU’s list of priorities. Expected but not justified.
A selective approach to problem-solving while constantly putting out figurative fires, as a consequence of the absence of timely decision-making mechanisms, has put the Union in a situation where the existing socio-economic and political differences, augmented in times of crisis, are difficult to cope with, let alone reduce. Furthermore, leaving the Western Balkans on the European periphery for an extended period of time, under the pretext of first stabilizing conditions on European soil, can be both dangerous and counterproductive. Because the idea of the EU post-1989 was conveyed to the countries of Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans as “only one option, without alternative” (a slogan originally used in Great Britain by Margaret Thatcher) with the belief that nationalism and real politics were defeated and that the time had come for Europe take responsibility for itself in political, value-related, security and economic terms.
While all Western Balkan countries are facing almost identical internal problems, which could point to close regional co-operation in overcoming them, bilateral relations are burdened by inherited unresolved issues of the past. The obsession with the past, spontaneous but also imposed, blocks the region so much that the wise words from almost two centuries ago are simply forgotten – “It is not crucial where we are but where we are heading and in which direction we are sailing”, obviously referring to the ancient slogan of “we must sail”. The past should not be discarded or forgotten, as looking back and looking in the rearview mirror is necessary for safe driving. However, standing still and waiting is disastrous.
Excluding the other and failing to see the perspective of the other, is a pattern of behaviour so common in the WB region. And when precious steps are taken towards normalization, the infamous generators of yesteryear rear their ugly heads. The train to Brussels goes through the neighbour’s yards, through Sarajevo, Priština, Podgorica, Skopje and Tirana. The establishment of mini-Schengen and mini-EU should not be questioned. It is very important to create a climate of trust and awareness of common regional destiny. Stereotypes, prejudices, nationalist myths, closedness, ethnic and other intolerance, xenophobia, but also economic crisis, social misery and brain drain as the most tragic occurrence, in the long run, are all strong enemies of trust.
“The sustainability of regional initiatives is not possible if the processes are not supported by a broader social consensus. The consensus is possible only if the processes are inclusive”
Democratic institutions, an open society, a responsible press, a changed attitude of intellectual elites, a tolerant atmosphere, lively human communication, developed cultural cooperation and constant dialogue in the region are the strongest pillars of renewed trust.
The Berlin Declaration, adopted at the 2014 Summit, was expected to give a strong new impetus to the regional cooperation process. The eighteen points of the declaration define a policy framework and guidelines aimed at “strengthening regional economic co-operation and establishing a basis for sustainable economic growth”, building better connectivity and improving the business environment for faster and more functional EU integration of the Western Balkans. Despite clearly stated wishes, more concrete results were lacking. The 2014 Berlin summit predicted, “four years until real progress is seen”. Progress, six years later, is modest, almost invisible. The process brought a breath of fresh air to the enlargement debate, complementing the narrative of normative negotiation and chapter-based methodology, with much-needed debate on its results in the segment of local infrastructure, position of young people, market integration, emigration, inequality and more.
The results of the BalkanBarometre, an annual survey of the Regional Cooperation Council, have been indicating identical challenges for citizens in all countries in the WB year-on-year – unemployment, poor economic situation, high corruption, etc. In that light, regional processes can offer a lot – one region, one economy, one investment space, one information space.
Roads, bridges, railway and energy grids are not only symbolically important but are the basis for economic development and boosting the competitiveness of the region, economies and companies individually. For this reason, the public’s focus on infrastructure is understandable, at the same time, expectations can never be met, as such projects are complex prerequisites that require coordination between national actors on the one hand, and countries and international financial institutions on the other. Transport, energy and, more recently, digital connectivity projects have received the necessary impetus and rank at the top of regional investment priorities and EU financial support. The agreed infrastructure projects, combined with progress in establishing a regional economic area, will result in the creation of interdependence, which would undoubtedly reduce tensions in relations between Balkan societies.
“In the coming period, it is up to us to do everything possible to cross the well-trodden path to Europe as soon as possible. This journey, during which we will change ourselves, is more important than the final destination”
It is to be expected that there will be no enlargement during the current mandate of the European Commission, so it is crucial that the regional leaders commit themselves to reforms that will identify structural problems. Initiatives such as the mini-Schengen, as well as the creation of a Regional Economic Area, can accelerate regional development and bring the countries of the region closer to the EU membership. These initiatives pave the way for goods, services, capital, people and labour to flow among the countries of the region before they join the EU, thus increasing the competitiveness of the regional market.
The current sectoral division of the Western Balkan economies is very similar – the services sector is dominant at has close to a 60% share in GDP, the agricultural sector accounts for between 9-14% of GDP, while industrial production accounts for between 17% and 25% in all countries in the region. With this in mind, a regional approach to trade and the creation of a type of a Regional Economic Area would have several positive effects on regional development – the increase in the size of the available market, the transition from (mostly) agricultural trade to trade in services, and better industrial connectivity. It is of great importance to increase the competitiveness of the region and to be able to attract better quality foreign investments that would enable the transfer of new technologies and innovations.
Currently, the gap in digital transformation seems to be the easiest to bridge. Digital transformation can help expedite economic growth and achieve higher employment rates, have a positive impact on reducing the scope for corruption by reforming administrative practices, increase regional connectivity and make life easier for citizens and domestic businesses.
Moreover, regional cooperation in these areas requires a high level of administrative cooperation and integration of public administrations in charge of trade. This practically prepares the region for cooperation within the EU and sends a positive signal to member states that there is no reason to fear the integration of new members. The spillover effect in cooperation in these areas would positively reflect on security cooperation and the creation of a kind of regional security framework, i.e. the abolition of internal borders implies control of entry and exit of people and goods at external borders, so the necessity of security cooperation is unquestionable.
With this in mind, future processes, frameworks or platforms need to be developed in a way that limits and sets clear priorities when it comes to the number of aspects they cover. On the example of the Berlin Process, it is obvious that the initiative was positive, but it was not strategically planned, which resulted in poor implementation, which yielded poor and unclear results. It is therefore crucial that the Member States undergo institutionalization, as well as set tangible results that are visible and measurable. In this way, there is a chance to further clarify the responsibilities and expectations of individual members, and to introduce public indicators of the implementation process, which should be published at a six-month level within the region. In order to be useful in the future, regional processes must adapt to new circumstances.
In cooperation with the European Commission, they should find tools aimed at helping the implementation of the six main initiatives of the EC Strategy for the Region (2018), but also to offer a framework for initiatives that the strategy did not envisage.
Therefore, in the coming period, it is up to us to do everything possible to cross the well-trodden path to Europe as soon as possible, to impose ourselves as an organized, stable, democratic and economically successful Western Balkan society to the European Union and as a constructive and necessary partner in ensuring the stability of this still turbulent European region and by that Europe itself. This journey, during which we will change ourselves, is more important than the final destination.
Western Balkans and EU – comparison
Judging by all economic criteria, the countries of the region lag behind the EU countries with a GDP per capita almost six times lower than the Union’s average. The EBRD estimates that if the current level of economic growth is maintained, it will take the countries of the region more than 60 years to reach the EU average. High unemployment is present throughout the region — almost 22% on average. True, official data show that unemployment is declining in most countries in the region, but the current job creation rate is insufficient to address the challenges of the regional labour market. The most vulnerable categories of the population in the region are women, poorly educated people and young people (the regional average of youth unemployment is 47%). All of this, combined with high public debt, shows that labour market challenges are structural and that relatively low current economic growth will not be enough to address them.