Following the Western Balkans Summit with EU leaders in Berlin on 3 November, the leaders of the six Western Balkan states signed three agreements for closer economic cooperation. The meeting took place within the framework of the Berlin Process, which since 2014 has aimed to promote regional integration. The “Open Balkan” initiative was also launched with a similar objective, namely closer regional cooperation.
With the aim of enabling the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital among its members, Albania, Serbia, and North Macedonia signed agreements in 2019, initially under the name “Mini-Schengen” and since 2021 under the “Open Balkan” initiative (OBI). It focuses on economic issues that should noticeably improve the everyday lives of citizens in these countries. For example, declared goals include the mutual recognition of degrees and work permits as well as cooperation in disaster prevention and food security.
So far, the initiative, which is strongly supported by the United States, has been limited to intergovernmental formats and does not include an institutional framework, as is the case, for example, with the Regional Cooperation Council of the Western Balkan states in Sarajevo. Moreover, no treaty exists, which makes it difficult to define a clear goal and thus set expectations. Instead, there is an open invitation to all countries in the Western Balkans to participate in all or selected projects. For example, starting in January 2023, many restrictions on customs duties and capital transfers will be eliminated for the three OBI member states. The World Bank estimates that these measures will save 30 million hours of waiting time at the borders and 3.2 billion euros.
Despite this positive momentum, so far only three of the six Western Balkan states are members of the OBI. Kosovo wants to avoid any impression of settling for a “waiting room” rather than full EU membership. Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, categorically rejected the initiative co-founded by Serbia, thereby allowing him to demonstrate domestic political strength. Moreover, calls for cooperation have so far been directed at “the provisional Pristina institutions” to underscore Serbia’s failure to recognise Kosovo, so this important formality alone is grounds for rejection.
The governments of Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina, on the other hand, are divided. In Sarajevo, the Serbian entity in government supports the OBI, which is rejected by the Bosnian and Croatian entities. Thus, the initiative has become a political tool for obstructionist politics and is not necessarily evaluated in terms of its content. Members of the government in Podgorica are also ambivalent. With the argument that the country is furthest along the path to EU membership, no new initiative should jeopardise this trajectory. However, Montenegro recently signalled interest and participated in the “Open Balkan” meeting in Ohrid as an observer.
The OBI receives little active support from the EU. With reference to the Berlin Process, which aims to guide the region towards EU membership, there are fears of duplication, which indeed cannot be ruled out. For example, in October 2022, agreements between all six Western Balkan states were finally negotiated within the framework of a Western Balkans conference, the content of which was also decided by the three countries of the OBI in June 2022. In both cases, the issue was the recognition of personal documents and the mutual recognition of degrees and professional qualifications.
However, this duplication can also be interpreted as intentional. After all, negotiations for these agreements began as early as 2021 within the framework of the Berlin Process. However, due to disagreements between Serbia and Kosovo, no compromise could be found for a long time. Then, in June 2022, the three OBI countries decided to move forward with the suggested agreements, but this became moot when a compromise between Serbia and Kosovo was finally reached in August 2022, and the agreements between all six Balkan States were signed in Berlin on 3 November. Such a sequence of events presumably led Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama to the somewhat inflated assessment that the OBI was an “implementation tool” of the Berlin Process.
Overall, the OBI should be seen as complementary to the Berlin Process. After all, in addition to deeper regional cooperation arranged by the Western Balkan states themselves, it remains important for the countries of the Western Balkans to be closely involved in the EU’s decision-making process, be it in the joint purchase of gas, migration via the so-called Balkan route, the implementation of the green agenda, or the fight against cybercrime.
Moreover, it is of high symbolic importance that after more than 40 regional initiatives in the past 25 years, this one comes from the region itself and is thus associated with the often invoked “local ownership”. The fact that Albania and Serbia, which are by no means natural allies politically, have jointly launched this initiative is remarkable in itself. Beyond its symbolic value, the OBI holds other possibilities. Increased regional economic integration can spur foreign investment and strengthen the countries economically. This in turn can better prepare the countries of the Western Balkans for their integration into the EU single market and, among other things, counteract the “brain drain” from the region.
Accession Negotiations, Association and New Formats Should Be Coordinated