A few thoughts on the Western Balkans summit in London

Western Balkans Summit London 2018

The latest summit of the so-called Berlin Process, an inter-governmental forum set up following a German initiative five years ago, was held in London on 9/10 July 2018. This year’s gathering is unlikely to enter the history books, for it managed to achieve even less than the pessimists predicted. There is no sugar-coating this, the evidence is overwhelming, so let us say it outright: the summit was a failure. It failed on three accounts: (a) the host; (b) the event; and (c) the results. But the failure is not Britain’s fault alone; quite to the contrary, the current result fits the profile so far. The Berlin process was hardly ever anything more than a photo-opportunity for the domestic and European elites. It never actually achieved much and this year’s failure was somewhat predictable––as is next year’s.

But let’s look at these points one by one.

(a) The host: Why Britain?

From the beginning, one question loomed over this year’s Berlin Process summit like no other: Why Britain? After all, the UK is set to exit the European Union, while the Western Balkan states wish to join it. The Berlin Process sought to provide the WB6 (as the six states are generally called) with a mechanism for economic, infrastructure and political cooperation, mutual exchanges, and reform in light of the fact that EU membership was far away for all of them. It was a process supposed to supplement EU integration efforts by focusing on what could be done in the meantime. In other words, it is intrinsically linked to EU membership. As host, the UK thus faced a big credibility issue.

However, in the past few months, it seemed the UK officials were somewhat unwilling to see this point. When confronted with it, they would often say that, of course, the UK has a role to play in the Balkans; after all, a stable, democratic, and economically prosperous Western Balkans is in its own interest, regardless of Brexit. The UK had something to contribute here, one was told; someone questioning British engagement in this area was accused of supporting the alternative, which was seen as the region outside the EU.

Of course, such a line of argument is nonsense. Even if you agree that EU membership is the only way to sustainably secure a stable, democratic, and prosperous Western Balkans––as most of people engaged in this field do––you can still think that a country set to exit the EU is probably not the best advocate in this regard. The problem is not the message, it’s the messenger. And of course, is true that there are areas where the UK can actually positively contribute to the region’s progress (see here). But the problem is that the UK seems to have overestimated its influence. The economic ties between the Western Balkans and the EU are marginal and the WB diaspora community in the UK is small, compared to those from other areas. Also it is important to remember that the citizens of the WB6 countries still need visas to enter the UK, which made participation in the preparatory meetings somewhat challenging.

There was a logic in having the UK host, however, for the invitation had been extended before Brexit. Furthermore, the UK was among the initial drivers of the reform agenda in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which started with the Anglo-German initiative. But if the actual event shows one thing, then that Brexit and the state of the UK government should have led to a rethinking of this strategy.

(b) The Event

Before the summit, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) put a lot of efforts into making this meeting a success. A special department was set up to deal with the preparations and the recruited officials took their preparatory work very seriously. They held different meetings and seminars with experts on the region, both in the UK and in the region itself, and they listened to what the experts had to say. Often times, they agreed with the concerns raised. In addition, a whole lot of work was done behind the scenes to strengthen administrative cooperation between the UK and the WB6, particularly in the area of law enforcement, so as to create a positive climate for the summit itself.

But the FCO officials were somewhat constrained by the summit’s format, which presumably prevented them from taking on board the broader implications of the challenges in the region. Early on, they decided fo focus on the three themes: increasing economic stability, strengthening regional security cooperation, and facilitating political cooperation. Repeated efforts to introduce equally important topics like the rule of law fell somewhat on death ears.

And then, of course, came the day of the summit itself. As a result of a disagreement with the cabinet’s newest Brexit strategy––the Chequers agreement outlining a softer version of Brexit––the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson resigned on the day he was supposed to greet the Foreign Ministers of the WB6 countries. Alan Duncan, the Minister responsible for Europe, stepped in, while Theresa May found herself in a situation in which she had to secure her position as Prime Minister by addressing parliament and holding extra meetings with her party and her cabinet. If this episode demonstrated anything to the WB6 leaders, then that the Western Balkans was certainly not a priority for the UK government, especially not at a time when the government itself seems unstable. They must have felt like invitees to a party at which the host couple decided to split up and one of them had to carry on as if nothing had happened while the invitees decided to partake in that illusion out of politeness.

(c) The results

Of course, the London summit produced many results, particularly declarations of intent and respective agreements. The heads of state agreed to a “Joint Declaration on Regional and Good Neighbourly Relations”, a “Joint Declaration on Missing Persons”, and a “Joint Declaration on War Crimes” (see the documents here).  The interior ministers confirmed their intensions to further strengthen information exchange on serious organised crime and other security threats; to further cooperate in tackling the illicit possession, misuse and trafficking of firearms; to deal with human trafficking and the smuggling of migrants; and to deal with corruption (see here). They also agreed to establish a “Berlin Process Security Commitments Steering Group” to oversee the commitments, headed by the UK (see here). And the Foreign Ministers basically reiterated the positive developments in the region in the past year and congratulated themselves for the great job they had done (see here). (Note that the conclusions of the meetings are not “joint conclusions” but the “chair’s conclusions”, which in diplomatic terms do not require general agreement.)

In addition, the UK used the stage to announce changes in its Western Balkans policy (see here) which included a doubling in UK funding to the region from the Conflict, Security and Stability Fund, as well as a doubling of UK staff in the region dealing with security issues affecting the UK. Furthermore, the UK committed £10 million for digital education among young people; this is a programme run through the British Council from which 4,500 schools will benefit.  In addition, the UK promised £1 million to help address legacy issues in the region, especially emphasising the issue of missing persons in this context, which also had a particular importance during the summit.

Looking at these results, they seem underwhelming. What was agreed is declaratory with no possibility of monitoring, even if the Steering Group is supposed to perform such a function on a limited basis. Apart from the UK committment, which at times seems very self-serving and could have been made at any other time, there seems to be nothing new or substantial that the WB6 and the EU leaders agreed upon.

The future

All of this actually leads us to ask one important question: so what? And indeed, the situation in the Western Balkans would not have changed if this meeting hadn’t happened––and it will not change for it having happened.

But this is not Britain’s fault, even if its domestic events on the day ruined the photo-opportunity that many Balkan leaders had hoped this meeting to be. From the beginning, the WB leaders saw these meetings as part of their legitimacy-increasing strategy, i.e. an opportunity to boost their local profile and present the domestic public with the impression that things are moving forward. Their primary concern was to secure infrastructure and other investments, which is why they accepted each host country to add new issues to the agenda, which they knew would be of little or no consequence. Or do you remember what happened to the Environmental Agenda of the Paris summit, for example?

The most well-known result of the Berlin Process so far has been the establishment of the Regional Youth Cooperation Council (RYCO), which is supposed to further exchanges between the youth of the six countries. It recently finished its first call for applications and seems on a good path towards delivering on its mission. But it’s mission is limited, and should remain so. RYCO cannot act as a substitute for solutions to the many challenges the region is facing. It should not be overburdened with other issues, like reconciliation for example. The other, far lesser-known institution to emerge out of the vicinity of the Berlin Process is the Western Balkans Fund. Set up by the six WB states and financed by their Foreign Ministries, the fund aims at supporting common regional projects in the areas of education, science, culture, cross-border and youth cooperation as well as sustainable development.

However, the Berlin Process’s largest mistake so far was not its relative inconsequentiality. It was that the drivers of the process, the EU countries, used it for other purposes than the Western Balkans. The decision not to take the summit away from the UK this year must probably be seen in light of the ongoing Brexit negotiations in which Germany did not want to unnecessarily offend the UK. And the decision to invite Poland to host the summit next year reportedly followed the wish to better include Poland in important EU matters. I don’t suppose the rule of law will be on the agenda there.

Despite this decision, which could blow up in the EU leader’s faces in a similar fashion the London summit did, I think the Berlin Process is a good thing to have overall. Its structure might be cumbersome, but at least it puts the Western Balkans on the agenda in important EU capitals. It thereby manages to escape the even more complex framework of EU-led gatherings, which could also be criticised in a similar fashion. Also, the civil society gatherings and meetings around and in between the summits can act as important venues for cooperation among the region’s representative and also as a vehicle for further EU engagement with the Western Balkans. In this sense, it may be more about the journey than the destination.

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