Berlin Process: Gaslighting the Western Balkans

Sam Vaknin

Belgium (Brussels Morning newspaper) In Tirana, another summit of the Berlin Process between the EU and the Western Balkan polities has ended in grandiloquent and largely empty promises. 

The impoverished, hopelessly corrupt, and badly governed countries of the region – Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia – are caught in the EU’s delusional hall of mirrors aka “accession” and “enlargement”.

These backward locales are supposed to miraculously undergo two revolutions: green and digital. In the meantime, they are faced with multiple dangling carrots such as freer movement of goods and services into the EU common market and within it as well as investments in roads, other transport modalities, and energy, including electricity. Hope springs eternal.

The EU imposed a few “minor” and equally delusional conditions on this utopia: a better business climate, fewer regulations, integration of the domestic markets, and the perennial fight against corruption.

The truth is that the Western Balkans will never accede to the EU. The war in Ukraine, Brexit, and the rise of authoritarian regimes in new members such as Hungary made sure of that. 

In the wake of the elections in Slovakia and the contested elections in Poland, the EU is teetering on the brink of disintegration. The last thing it needs at this fraught time is new members, most of which are at each other’s throats periodically but predictably (cf. Kosovo and Serbia currently). Such local conflagrations also threaten workers’ mobility and thus the common economic space. 

The EU is also faced with a major immigration crisis with the Western Balkans aspirant states serving as the main route of transit to the heart of Europe (notably Germany and France) from the landing beaches of Greece and Italy.  

The EU has survived multiple traumas in the past two decades, including major financial crises, energy dependency on a foe (Russia), and COVID-19. But it is badly scarred and wounded.

The EU’s response to these variegated exigencies has always been attempts at closer, often coerced integration: joint procurement, common debt, the same legal space, and shared foreign, security, and defense policies.

But this integrative reflex militates for a tighter, smaller, and more contained union. As it is, consensus among all existing members is near impossible to build on critical issues such as foundational values of democracy and the rule of law or over Brussels’s reach and control of the internal affairs of its constituents and constituencies. 

This rancor and acrimony gave rise to populism and xenophobic nationalism everywhere and to an almost exclusive emphasis on the bilateral rather than the multilateral. 

North Macedonia’s drawn-out accession process is the most glaring example of this shift in emphasis, hampered as it was by Greece and Bulgaria, its disgruntled neighbors. Similarly, Hungary threatens to veto Ukraine’s mooted membership over its alleged mistreatment of the Hungarian minority in its midst. 

The truth is that the EU reached its absorption capacity long ago: it has been rendered inefficacious by successive waves of widely disparate new members whose entry had been geopolitically motivated in the first place. 

The EU has stagnated. It is unable to regulate itself through the maze of inane unanimity and qualified voting rights and the misallocation of its minuscule budgetary resources via cohesion funds for the more indigent members.

An egregious example of such misguided profligacy is the Common Agricultural Policy, one of the main impediments to the accession of Ukraine, an agricultural powerhouse. Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia are now faced with a WTO complaint filed by Ukraine over their bans on its grain entering their domestic markets. 

The looming threat of a re-emerging Russia is not an impetus for enlargement. On the very contrary: the invasion of Ukraine engendered a siege mentality in the bloc. The European Political Community – an initiated polylogue among leaders, most recently in Granada – is intended to forestall accession, not to hasten it. It is about displacement, not resolve. 

There is now talk of Macron’s “gradual integration”. After two decades of infertile talks, it is an interesting and welcome departure from conventional bureaucratese. But it is dead on arrival, literally impossible to implement without a major disruption to the EU’s daily business.

At heart is a debate about the very purpose of enlargement: is it a geostrategic tool or a functional and merit-based expansion of a common market with shared values?

If it is the former, then some candidates, like Ukraine, would enjoy a fast lane, ignoring the merits of their applications and the unforeseeable outcomes of war, while others languish in an apparently interminable process. 

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Sam Vaknin, Ph.D. is a former economic advisor to governments (Nigeria, Sierra Leone, North Macedonia), served as the editor in chief of “Global Politician” and as a columnist in various print and international media including “Central Europe Review” and United Press International (UPI). He taught psychology and finance in various academic institutions in several countries ( )