The ‘Merkel Era’ Paradox in the Western Balkans

The ‘Merkel Era’ Paradox in the Western Balkans

Ditmir Bushati*

In a few days, the Germans will go to the polls to decide about the new composition of the Bundestag. For the first time since 1949, the Chancellor does not seek re-election. She will retire after 16 years. So far, this is the only certain news. Everything else remains an enigma, as the electoral arithmetic based on public opinion polls is diverse and does not rule out any possible coalition to run the country. Interestingly, about 50% of Germans voted in advance by mail. The number of the undecided is high. Meanwhile, it is expected that the majority of three million first time voters lean towards the Greens.

Viewed in this context, it is difficult to predict whether the parliamentary elections in Germany will ensure continuity or change to the “Merkel era”. Whatever the outcome, at the international level, the next government must address the urgent challenge of geopolitical marginalization that the EU is facing, in the context of an increasingly zero-polar world.

It should be noted that Merkel built an impressive public support in Germany and an indisputable reputation in the international arena, including our region. Her style of politics and decisions have reflected the significant changes that have taken place in German society and politics, as well as an overwhelming desire to maintain the status quo as long as possible, while avoiding drastic changes.

Due to the exercise of “soft power”, Merkel has managed to lead the EU in difficult times, facing the financial crisis that deepened the development gap between northern and southern Europe; the refugee crisis and clashes on the rule of law within the EU, which deepened the division in terms of values between west and east Europe; security threats in eastern Europe as a result of Russia’s actions and those in the south of the continent due to terrorism and violent extremism; BREXIT; transatlantic cracks, which came to the surface with the President Trump administration, and the pandemic.

In some cases, in order to maintain cohesion within the EU, Merkel has had to tolerate the democratic backsliding seen in some EU member states, or the nationalist waves that have damaged the corpus of values and freedoms over which stands the EU. The situation within the EU is projected in one way or another also in the Western Balkans, which can be considered as its backyard.

In this context, the departure of Angela Merkel from the political scene is naturally accompanied by uncertainty not only for Germany and Europe, but also for the European future of our region. There is no doubt that Chancellor Merkel, at the European level, is the most interested leader and with the most complete level of understanding for the Western Balkans. Her occasional visits to the region, her messages even during the farewell visit to Belgrade and Tirana, the initiatives presented and supported by her for the region, confirm the importance that Germany attaches to the membership of the Western Balkan countries in the EU, although it must be acknowledged that the region is not on Germany’s list of top priorities.

In 2005, shortly before being elected German Chancellor, Angela Merkel would state in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that “with its current enlargement policy, the EU has reached the limit of its ability to integrate new members”, calling for a consolidation phase for the EU before the latter thinks about new members.

This climate was reflected in the Enlargement Strategy of November 2006, where the European Commission for the first time introduced benchmarks as a tool to improve and monitor the quality of reforms during the accession process. An integral part of this strategy was the special report on the EU’s ability to admit new members, emphasizing that enlargement should not hamper the EU’s ability to deepen the integration process and increase the efficiency of its institutions.

For the first time in the 2005 negotiating framework for Croatia and Turkey, a separate chapter was introduced, Chapter 23 – Judiciary and Fundamental Rights, which together with Chapter 24 – Justice, Freedom and Security, cover a wide range of issues related to the rule of law, mainly justice reform, the fight against organized crime and corruption. This way, the introduction of the benchmarks and Chapter 23 proved effective for Croatia, becoming the first country to face the new approach and successfully conclude the negotiations and the EU membership process.

The importance of Chapters 23 and 24 was reinforced by the European Commission in the 2011 Enlargement Strategy, which proposed a new approach to prioritizing reforms in the field of rule of law. Rule of law issues were considered a priority, and it was decided that Chapters 23 and 24 should be opened first and closed last, accompanying the entire membership process.

Montenegro was the first country to start talks based on this new approach. In the case of Serbia, due to the insistence of Germany, the EU included elements related to the normalization of relations with Kosovo in the negotiating framework. Consequently, the talks began with Chapter 35, giving particular importance to the process of normalization of Serbia-Kosovo relations, which would be followed by mutual recognition. In the case of Albania, justice reform would become a precondition for starting EU membership talks.

In a tacit manner, the EU, at the insistence of some German-backed member states, “established” an unwritten practice that no more than two chapters could be opened during a six-month presidency. France, on the other hand, for mainly internal reasons, demanded the revision of the enlargement process, making the EU membership process even more conditional, non-automatic, and almost different in stages and requirements from what the countries of the Central and Eastern Europe went through.

Thus, the whole process of EU membership of the countries of the region stalled. The most flagrant is the case of Albania and North Macedonia. Although they have met the standards to start membership talks since June 2018, they have yet to start them. Kosovo, although it has been fulfilling the reforms related to the visa liberalization process for years, continues to be isolated. Such a situation rightly raises questions about the credibility of the enlargement process and fosters the instincts of the past, holding the future of the region hostage.

In order not to leave the region under the effects of the depression that the lack of concretization of the enlargement process could bring, the German Chancellor announced in 2014 the “Berlin Process”, as an opportunity for the re-engagement of the EU with the Western Balkan countries, at a time when the EU itself was more focused on addressing internal crises and where the geopolitical context with the Ukraine crisis had evolved significantly.

Fear prevailed at the time that the Berlin Process could serve as a substitute for the EU membership process. Germany on the one hand and the countries of the region on the other, insisted that for the region there is no alternative but EU membership. It must be acknowledged that the Berlin Process somewhat changed the routine of the enlargement format and placed the emphasis on comprehensive regional co-operation with the signing of the declaration addressing bilateral disputes and issues of completing statehood; with the establishment of the Regional Office of Youth Cooperation based on the Franco-German model; Secretariat of the Chambers of Commerce of the six countries of the Western Balkans; and the Regional Economic Zone, thus fostering relationships between different social agents.

At the same time, the Berlin Process adopted the agenda of regional connectivity between the countries of the region and the EU, in order to reduce the development gap between the Western Balkans and the EU. Through this process, the Western Balkans was placed on the European map of transport and energy, although still without tangible projects for the citizens of the region and without connection with the EU neighbors.

Also, in the European Commission Enlargement Strategy 2018, which was supported by the leaders of the EU Member States and those of the Western Balkan countries at the Sofia Summit, were outlined 6 flagship initiatives such as: transport, energy interconnection, digital agenda, economic and social development, rule of law and security, and migration, in order to strengthen cross-sectoral cooperation.

Seven years after the introduction of this initiative, it can be said that it is far from the initial expectations, just like the EU membership process. First, the process has failed to mitigate bilateral disputes or issues of completing the statehood which hinder the potential of the Western Balkan countries for deeper cooperation, which would translate into more prosperity and economic growth. On the contrary, in the region there were tendencies and attempts to return to the old ideas that gave priority to territories over people, revision of history, denial of genocide and barbaric war crimes, merging of religion with the nation as a divisive and ruling instrument at the expense of the neighbors. In thwarting these attempts, the role of the Chancellor and Germany is irreplaceable.

Second, the process has failed to mobilize the necessary financial resources to address the existing gap between the Western Balkan countries and those of the EU that have a direct impact on regional connectivity. For example, for the budgetary cycle 2021-2027, which is reflected in the Economic Investment Plan for the Western Balkans, the EU Member States surrounding our region receive 11 times more per capita funding than the Western Balkan countries. This increases the pessimism of the citizens of the region, and leads to the loss of confidence in building a development perspective. To put it bluntly, citizens are not fed with chapters, countless bureaucratic procedures, or intergovernmental conferences. They need to concretely embrace development and thus become actors in the radical transformation of our societies.

Third, the process has not provided instruments that improve the system of governance, based on the rule of law, neither the ownership over the reforms of the Western Balkan countries. It is clear that our societies remain essentially societies with fragile, dysfunctional institutions and where the main battle is not so much with the influence of third actors as with the metastases of organized crime and corruption eroding the foundations of society and the rules of democratic coexistence .

Fourth, although an intergovernmental platform, the Berlin Process lacks institutions and a well-defined budget in order to meet commitments which would reduce the dependence of some countries in the region on third-party actors aiming for the status quo.

Fifth, the “menu” of the process has somewhat lost its initial focus, failing to address the three fundamental challenges the countries of the region face: (i) democracy; (ii) sustainable economic development; (iii) demographic threat.

This is the paradox of the “Merkel era” in the region. Presence and understanding incomparable to any other European country, but insufficient results, as the integration of the six Western Balkan countries into the EU would be a step towards reaching the EU finality implying the consolidation of the European integration project, in a concrete political space with a boundary defined at the continental level.

According to a recent survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), most European citizens believe in Germany and seek a greater role for it in the EU. Surveys conducted in the Western Balkan countries also confirm citizens’ trust in Germany and expectations for greater engagement by it.

The topic of Germany’s greatest engagement in the international arena is an ever-present topic in research centers and decision-making institutions. In 2012-2013, a project was implemented in Germany by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, with the participation of a wide network of experts, related to the strategic elements of German foreign policy. The strategic analysis showed that “German power imposes a redefinition of the German position in international relations” and that “Germany owes its power and prosperity above all to global economic expansion, so it must act actively at the global level”.

This thesis is also supported by one of the most energetic foreign ministers, Joschka Fischer, who considers Germany’s political and economic interests to be linked to a strong and successful EU. According to him, Germany must overcome the traumas of the past and put its power in the function of creating a strong Europe under its leadership.

Therefore, the dilemma that needs to be answered after the departure of Angela Merkel from the political scene is whether, in order to duly fulfill the role of European leader, consolidate the project of European integration and strengthen the transatlantic link, Berlin will have to reconsider those principles of Merkelism that made the Europeans and the peoples of our region rightly set their hopes on Germany./ibna

*Ditmir Bushati is former Foreign Minister of Albania