Date: 7 May 2019    Author: Szymon Szynkowski vel Sęk

Poland in Strategic Relations between the European Union and the Balkans

We constantly support the European Union, built on the ideas of companionship and mutual respect for diversity and sovereignty of states. These principles, therefore, have also become the foundation of the plans of our Berlin Process presidency – the aim of which is to encourage the countries of the Western Balkans to join the European Community.

Private archive, DePuty Minister of foreign affairs of the rePublic of Poland – Szymon SzynkowSki vel Sęk

Six countries within the region of Southeast Europe are also part of the Western Balkans. This term, although imprecise, reflects the geographical location and the current political context of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Northern Macedonia, and Serbia. In other words, the region brings together six entities with ethnic, linguistic and religious diversities – which translates into different needs and problems. Regardless of whether we are talking about the countries of the Western Balkans or candidates for EU membership, such terms will always appear in the context of the enlargement policy of the European Union.

The population of the Western Balkans amounts to almost 19 million people. Of the six countries, the highest GDP per capita – in Montenegro – represents 43% of the EU average[1]. Extensive Stabilization and Association Agreements regulate the current relations of all the Western Balkan countries with the European Union, and the process of accession talks is described in the agreements regarding the so-called negotiating framework.

Serbia and Montenegro are the leaders of the enlargement process with 16 and 32 negotiating chapters open, respectively (out of 35). The most important chapters, in line with the principle fundamentals first, are chapters 23 – judiciary and fundamental rights, and 24 – justice, freedom, and security. In the case of Serbia, another issue of crucial importance for the integration process is regulating relations with Kosovo (which it does not recognize). This problem is being addressed in the format of the so-called standardization dialogue, moderated by the European External Action Service. Northern Macedonia and Albania have been candidates for EU membership since 2005 and 2014, respectively.

The European Union and its member states have a chance to open accession negotiations in 2019, provided that reforms are effectively implemented in a dozen or so areas, mainly in the judiciary and the fight against corruption and organized crime. It should be stressed that Northern Macedonia, following the historic agreement with Greece on the name of the state (the Prespa Agreement) and the introduction of constitutional changes, is an example of how politically mature leaders can reach consensus on an impossible issue.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is still working towards candidate status and is counting on a favorable decision before the end of 2019. The recent general elections in the country solidified social divisions along ethnic and religious lines. Besides, the system and activity of state structures, based on the Dayton agreement (which is partly no longer functional) do not encourage the dynamics of state development, which resulted in a high percentage of the population emigrating out of the country. The youngest in the region, Kosovo, is still struggling with the recognition of its statehood by the international community and is seeking membership in international organizations[2].

Why does Poland support further EU enlargements? The answer to this question must relate to both values and experiences and the current world’s geopolitical situation. The countries of the Western Balkans create a geographical, historical and cultural part of Europe. In light of their shared roots and conviction of a shared, deeply humanist social foundation, their full participation in the European project is simply a matter of solidarity. Moreover, all previous enlargements, including the largest in 2004, have undoubtedly led to an increase in the importance of the EU as a global actor and has led to positive developments within the community itself. The impact of EU accession on the situation in the countries that have so far joined the community is not insignificant, and the success of the Polish transformation is a highly valued example among the representatives of the Western Balkans Six.

Although the circumstances are different today and the skepticism of some Western European countries towards the enlargement of the community is extreme, enlargement remains the most effective tool for the EU to work for peace, security, and prosperity of the candidate countries. At this point, it is necessary to stress the interdependence aspect – just as the Balkan countries need the EU, the EU needs openness and cooperation on the part of its Balkan partners.

Faced with the challenges of the often-destructive influence of so-called third actors, the problem of uncontrolled migration, extremism or terrorism, weak economies or the lack of economic convergence between this region and the rest of Europe, the EU cannot afford to leave a vacuum in an area surrounded by its member states. We constitute one body and regardless of the position of some member states ideologically distant from the idea of enlargement, we must develop a model of cooperation that will benefit all the countries of Europe.

Poland has consistently defended the position stating that the most appropriate way forward is for both sides to strive for full accession of the Western Balkan countries. Our support for enlargement is not unconditional – all countries aspiring to the EU should make clear progress to accelerate integration with the community. Every year Poland increases its commitment to supporting the reform efforts of the Balkan countries. We share our pre-accession experience with our Balkan partners by participating in twinning projects, organizing trainings for officials and expert bilateral conferences and seminars for young people in the field of reconciliation.

All the more pleasing is the attitude of the European Commission, presented since September 2017. Its document “A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans” (the so-called EC Strategy for the Western Balkans of February 2018) was well-received by the interested parties and by other countries – supporters of the enlargement policy.

A 2025 target date for the next wave of enlargement was already mentioned in Juncker’s State of the Union address of 2017 and repeated in the EC Strategy, awakening hopes and demonstrating to the citizens of the Western Balkans a real prospect of accession.

The order of the EU Council Presidency has also contributed to a definite improvement in the dynamics of enlargement policy. It started with the Bulgarian Presidency, which included the organization of the first summit of EU and Western Balkan leaders in 15 years last May in Sofia, and continued through the Austrian Presidency with a security focus in the region and this year’s presidencies of the Tallinn Group[3] members, Romania and Finland, to Croatia, which is planning another 27+6 summit.

The hopes awakened by the results of the package of reports on aspiring countries published by the European Commission in April 2018 were suppressed by the postponement of the start of accession negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia and the failure of the plan of the European Commission and the Austrian Presidency to introduce visa-free travel with Kosovo[4] in the second half of 2018.

On the other hand, the declaration signed at the Sofia Summit underlines the importance of a sustained commitment by the Western Balkan countries to the rule of law, the fight against corruption and organized crime, respect for human rights and the rights of people belonging to minorities. At the same time, the EU reaffirms its commitment to the countries of the region, strengthening connectivity in transport and energy infrastructure, digitization and people–to–people contacts, and enhancing cooperation in the face of common challenges to security, migration, the geopolitical situation and good relations among neighbors.

The EU and the UN agreed to intensify joint work on the primary security priorities: combating terrorism and extremism and preventing radicalization; strengthening cooperation in the fight against organized crime, in particular arms and drug trafficking, smuggling of goods and persons, as well as cyber and hybrid threats, migration and border management.

The expectations of Balkan societies towards the community are high, although they are understandably manifested in different ways. The challenge, which seems to be common to all the countries of the region, is to remove political, social and economic barriers in order to accelerate development in domains that allow societies, especially the younger generation, to believe in the sense of building their own countries and the prospect of individual growth without having to look for their own future in the current EU member states.

Private archive, DePuty Minister of foreign affairs of the rePublic of Poland – Szymon SzynkowSki vel Sęk. © MFA Macedonia – Oliver Acev

This means a determined fight by the state apparatus against corruption, nepotism, organized crime and its links with the spheres of power or the police, ensuring freedom of the media and security for whistleblowers, guaranteeing political pluralism in the name of democratic rules and opening up the elite to a genuinely free civil society – very active and conscious in the countries of the Western Balkans.

An essential aspect of bringing the countries of the region closer to the European Union is the development of regional cooperation, including in the framework of the so-called Berlin Process. This process was initiated in 2014 by Chancellor Angela Merkel[5] as a reaction to the slowdown in EU enlargement policy, symbolized by the politically demobilizing statement by Jean–Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, that there will be no new members during his term of office.

The Berlin Process brings together six Western Balkan countries (covered by EU policies) and several EU member states[6]. Its connection with the enlargement policy of the union is not unambiguous. First of all, it should be stressed that the Berlin Process – although representatives of the European Commission participate in the meetings – is not part of the enlargement policy or the EU initiative, but it is of an intergovernmental and informal nature. Therefore, on the one hand, it is sometimes criticized as a replica of the European Commission’s actions, and on the other hand, there are fears that the process has, in fact, become an alternative, a kind of “security”, if the prospect of the Western Balkans’ accession would be postponed into the very distant future. Poland, while appreciating the importance of the Berlin Process, takes the view that it complements the EU’s enlargement policy, as in some areas the EC’s technical accession process works better, while in others it is the Berlin Process that gives it the necessary political impetus.

The European Commission’s strategy for the Western Balkans, published in February 2018, has many similarities to the Berlin Process agenda and refers to the issues that have been initiated in this process (e.g., the Regional Youth Cooperation Office). Regardless of how we define the relationship between the Berlin Process and EU enlargement policy, reforms and initiatives of the process support the progress of the Western Balkan countries towards integration and, even more importantly, contribute to improving the lives of their inhabitants.

The distinguishing feature of the Berlin Process is its multilayered nature. How these layers are combined depends to a large extent on the leadership. At the heart of the Berlin Process is the economy and regional cooperation. The most important tool for economic integration is the Multiannual Action Plan for the Regional Economic Area, adopted by the prime ministers of the Western Balkan countries at the Trieste Summit. Its four pillars – trade, investment, mobility, and digital inclusion – set out areas for intensive reforms, bringing economies and societies closer together.

Another aim of the Berlin Process is to implement infrastructure projects (related to energy and transport) included in the Connectivity Agenda. They include, for example, the reconstruction of a port, the construction of another section of the ring road or the renovation of a railway line. These projects are currently underway and will become the most tangible effect of the process once put into service.

However, connectivity is understood more broadly in the Berlin Process – not only as the construction of physical infrastructure but also the introduction of proper regulations (soft measures), which will make this infrastructure serve the economy and residents. An example of such an important area already regulated in the EU for the inhabitants of the Western Balkans is the reduction of roaming charges. A new element, introduced by the United Kingdom in 2018, is security, including the fight against organized crime and the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. This new element is entirely in line with the commission’s strategy towards the UN – where one of the six flagship initiatives is dedicated to cooperation in the area of security and migration.

Podgorica, Montenegro, March 1, 2017. President of the Parliament of Montenegro Ivan Brajovic shakes hands with EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, during her visit in Podgorica. © Boris Pejovic (PAP/EPA)

Last but not least, interconnections are not just about building a road or laying a fiber-optic cable, making these investments translates into a smoother flow of people and ideas. The Berlin Process is, therefore, intended to unite the nations of the Western Balkans – with one another, and also with the countries of the European Union. That is why it is so important for the Berlin Process to build good neighborly relations, progress on bilateral problems still being the legacy of the tragic events of the 1990s, and reconciliation, as well as the involvement of civil society and young people.

This multidimensionality of the Berlin Process is also reflected in the involvement of many stakeholders – governments and EU institutions, international organizations (such as the OECD), regional organizations (such as the Regional Cooperation Council or Regional Youth Cooperation Office), and international financial institutions (such as the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development), entrepreneurs, civil society and youth organizations – in its actions.

Poland joined the Berlin Process at the invitation of Chancellor Merkel in 2018 when we took part for the first time in the Western Balkans Summit in London and the accompanying meetings of the ministers of economy, foreign affairs and home affairs. This year, it is Poland that organizes the summit and holds its chairmanship. It will take place on July 4-5 in Poznań. The choice of the capital of Greater Poland (one of Poland’s regions, often known by its Polish name Wielkopolska), as the host city, is not accidental. Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, took into account the city’s 90 years of tradition organizing and hosting fairs, initiated by the General National Exhibition in 1929, which made the rebirth of Polish entrepreneurship and economy in Europe famous abroad. On the other hand, Poznań, as a well-connected city, situated halfway between Warsaw and Berlin, is a thriving academic center, where about 150,000 young people study every day. All these aspects are in line with the agenda of the Polish presidency of the Berlin Process. The leaders and heads of government of the countries of the process will gather in Poznań on June 5. Before this day, meetings of ministers of economy and internal affairs will be organized. The summit will accompany the European Union–Western Balkans Business Forum, Civil Society Forum, and EU–Western Balkans Think Tank Forum. At the ministerial level, however, Poland’s presidency begins earlier – with a meeting of foreign ministers on April 11-12 in Warsaw, which will focus on bilateral issues. In addition, the presidency is more than just the organization of a summit – Poland is, therefore, planning a whole series of events – from round tables for civil society in the capitals of the Western Balkans to the Forum of Cities and Regions organized by the Ministry of Investment and Economic Development, the latter of which is expected to bring together several hundred participants, headed by ministers for regional development.

We constantly support the European Union, which was built on the ideas of companionship and mutual respect for diversity and sovereignty of states. These principles, therefore, have also become the foundation of the plans of our Berlin Process presidency– the aim of which is to encourage the countries of the Western Balkans to join the European community. Poland did not want to play the role of a teacher disciplining its students, but as a partner and a friend, seeing mutual opportunities in the enlargement.

That is why we started the preparations for the presidency plan by listening to the expectations of our Balkan partners. We took into account the opinions and suggestions of the countries of the region, expressed during the consultations at the end of 2018 with my counterparts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Western Balkan countries. We also took into account the Polish experience gained during the accession to the EU and the achievements of the Berlin Process to date. The plan of the Polish presidency is based on four pillars: economy, connectivity, civil society (including bilateral issues, culture, and youth), and security.

From the outset, Poland has been cooperating very closely with the European Commission in planning the presidency and the summit, so that the Berlin Process and the enlargement agenda complement each other rather than compete. The process is also an essential tool for working closely with our most important economic and political partners in the European Union. Participating in the chairmanship role of the Berlin Process also established an opportunity to deepen contacts with international financial institutions, OECD, RCC, and RYCO.

Finally, the most critical question is what was the reason for Poland’s participation in the Berlin Process. First of all, these motivations coincide with those which make Poland an advocate of an open-door policy for the EU and a “friend of enlargement” among the member states. Poland wants to extend the zone of security and prosperity in Europe, and the way to do this is to support reforms and regional cooperation in the EU neighborhood. Secondly, the presidency is also an opportunity for Poland to share experiences of opportunities and threats related to political transformation and reforms in the pre-accession and post-accession periods. In this way, Poland can bring its experience to the process, being the first organizer of the summit that joined the EU after 2000.

As the initiator and promoter of another initiative promoting the enlargement policy – the Eastern Partnership – Poland becomes a credible multi-dimensional advocate of the EU enlargement policy on its 10th anniversary, thanks to its leadership in the Berlin Process. This will allow us to emphasize the importance of the Eastern Partnership in the international arena.

Poland is aware of the unique moment in which the summit will take place. It is a difficult moment but at the same time a decisive one for sustaining the positive dynamics in the enlargement process initiated by the 2017 State of the Union Address. The Western Balkans summit in Poznań will take place just over a month after the elections to the European Parliament; a few weeks after the General Affairs Council, at which Poland hopes to decide to open accession talks with Albania and Northern Macedonia, and during the negotiations on the new composition of the European Commission. Therefore, Poland is aware of the importance of the message of the leaders gathered at the Poznań Summit concerning the European perspective of the Western Balkans. These countries are now facing significant and difficult challenges, determining not only the future of the region but also the fate of Europe.

We want to support our partners on their way to the European Union – and not to Europe, because they have always been its part. We keep our fingers crossed for our friends and wish them success. We are convinced that as our great fellow countryman Pope John Paul II said that Europe must breathe with her “two lungs” – eastern and western – to fully be Europe.


[1] Based on:

[2] Kosovo has been recognized by more than 100 countries. It is still not a member of the UN. Recognition is opposed by Russia and China. Some EU countries – Cyprus, Greece, Spain, Romania and Slovakia – have also not recognized Kosovo.

[3] The Tallinn Group is an informal group of EU member states that are supporters of enlargement. The group members are Poland, other V4 countries and the Baltic States as well as Finland, Romania, Slovenia, Sweden, Italy and the United Kingdom.

[4] Kosovo is the only country in the Western Balkans whose citizens have to apply for short-term visas to EU countries. On July 18, 2018, the European Commission published a document updating information on the state of implementation of the Visa Liberalization Roadmap criteria. The commission confirms that Kosovo has met the last two criteria of the roadmap and that all criteria previously set out are still in the process of being met. In this context, it also positively evaluates Kosovo’s security and migration situation. Against this background, the commission recommends that the council and the European Parliament continue the procedure with the proposal submitted on May 4, 2016 to lift visa travel for Kosovo.  In response to this report, the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties (LIBE) supported on August 30, 2018, by a large majority, the start of the trilogue meetings with the council on visa-free travel for Kosovo citizens as soon as possible. This request received strong support also at the EP plenary meeting held on September 13, 2018. Finally, the proposal was not discussed by the council in the light of opposition from some member states.

[5] Successive summits of the Berlin Process were held in 2015 in Vienna, 2016 in Paris, 2017 in Trieste and 2018 in London.

[6] The members are: Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Slovenia, United Kingdom. Romania was invited to join.

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