It is now important to use this momentum as a window of opportunity to strengthen the European integration process with the region after years of stagnation.
Germany in the Western Balkans after the Zeitenwende
After February 24, the day Russia attacked Ukraine, there has been much talk about a Zeitenwende (i.e. turn of an era) in Germany. The Zeitenwende was proclaimed by Chancellor Olaf Scholz on 27 February 2022 as a direct response to Russia’s war against Ukraine. The goal of it is a revamp of our foreign and security policy. When it comes to Europe’s political and security architecture, the reaction of the Euro-Atlantic community is so far impressive: NATO will have two strong new members in the north; the interest of the US has considerably re-shifted towards Europe after years of neglect; and the EU accession process has received two new candidate countries. In Germany, the government has announced a 100-billion-Euro-plan to modernize its armed forces.
When it comes to the Western Balkans, the government had even before 24 February shown its enhanced commitment to the region. The visits paid by the Chancellor, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the Minister of State for Europe and Climate (even her first trip went to Skopje) since taking office underline that this interest is serious. The appointment of Manuel Sarrazin as Special Representative of the German Government for the Countries of the Western Balkans is unprecedented. These are crucial signs of the ongoing and enhanced support to the European path of the region.
It is now important to use this momentum as a window of opportunity to strengthen the European integration process with the region after years of stagnation. This is of course difficult, as for example the ongoing relevance of bilateral conflicts for the enlargement process shows. I am nevertheless more hopeful than before that after 24 February Europe’s commitment to the region is more credible and the potentially drastic consequences of neglecting the region have become visible even to the sceptics.
The Berlin Process after Zeitenwende
So what’s new in the Berlin Process when it comes to Zeitenwende? As with the other areas, I hope that there is primarily a new commitment of all sides involved to achieve progress. When it comes to issues, the Berlin Process is rather the place for continuity. This is not necessarily a bad thing: In a situation of fundamental shifts, “old” issues are often quickly forgotten even though they seemed very pressing only recently. For example, who is still talking about the situation of public health, arguably the most prominent issue of the past two years, after attention has shifted to security and geopolitics again? In a similar manner, we should not forget about, for example, environmental issues which have pulled thousands of citizens to the streets and proven fundamental challenges for the region’s governments in the past years. Dealing with air pollution or environmentally questionable investments is still important, even if these issues have now left the agenda for the greater geopolitical game. The task is to deal with both of these issue areas at the same time, especially as they are often interlinked as the energy sector shows.
At the Civil Society and Think Tank Forum, our goals is to offer a platform to experts and activists from the region to discuss and deliver their input to the issues of the Berlin Process. In a preparatory forum on 19-20 October and during the main forum on 1-2 November in Berlin, there will be the possibility to discuss, besides others, the implementation of the Green Agenda, the role of civil society in big infrastructure investments, the fight against disinformation, and the future of EU integration. Civil society will deliver valuable inputs to these issues and must at the same time act as a watchdog on political decision makers dealing with them. The voice of civil society is especially important considering the limited media freedom in many countries of the region and the thus lacking scrutiny. Another focus will be regional cooperation among civil society organizations working on similar topics in the different countries. At the Forum, we also aim to provide a space for finding potential cooperation partners, identify mutual interests and shared agendas, and thereby enhancing regional cooperation also among civil society organizations.
The road to Berlin
We as two German civil society organizations are very much looking forward to starting in the coming weeks the process of preparing the upcoming Civil Society Forum with our partners from the Western Balkans. We are optimistic that in these difficult times the continuation of the Berlin Process and the meeting in Berlin will be another example of how questions of European integration and cooperation are discussed much more seriously after 24 February, and how the democratic and European path will prevail on our continent, as it is the one chosen by the citizens.
Christian Hagemann is Executive Director of the Munich-based Southeast Europe Association (SOG)