Editorial: The problem with Open Balkans

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times November 5, 2021 15:18

Editorial: The problem with Open Balkans

Story Highlights

  • A system based on unequal partners might not be the best solution for growth and stability in the region. 

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The principle of the Open Balkan Initiative -- it’s ultimate goal being an EU-style regional borderless movement of people and goods -- is not a problem per se, as it is in line with what EU integration would look like inside the region -- a desirable outcome. 

Thus, neither Washington nor Brussels has opposed the idea in principle, because it has the potential to contribute to regional reconciliation and cooperation.

Nevertheless, the European Union as a whole -- but also important members like Germany -- have raised questions on two levels. First, does Open Balkans compete with other initiatives such as the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) or the Berlin Process? And, secondly and most importantly, why does the Open Balkan Initiative have the support of only three of six Western Balkan countries?

Moreover, a complete document that explains in detail how the initiative will operate either does not exist or has not been made public. Such a comprehensive document typically would include details about financing, procedures, rules, institutions responsible for the respective instruments, time of implementation and other elements.

There is a basic political argument that calls into question the Open Balkan Initiative -- its usefulness and even its ability to function. 

The leaders of Albania and Serbia, who were joined by the representative of North Macedonia at the Belgrade summit this week, say they intend to apply a Schengen-type system in the Balkans, based on the experience of the European Union. However, that’s a utopian dream at this time. Schengen was implemented in Europe at a time when there were no interstate conflicts. Germany and France had made peace immediately after the end of World War II. But in the Balkans there is currently a frozen conflict between Serbia and Kosovo. Serbia considers the border with Kosovo an administrative line on a map -- not an interstate border. The Schengen philosophy assumes that the demarcation of borders between states is complete, so before the system can be applied in the Western Balkans, all borders must be recognized and there must be no dispute about them.

Open Balkans supporters argue that Kosovo and the two other reluctant states, Bosnia and Montenegro, are ready to cooperate in other regional initiatives -- so why not for Open Balkans? It’s a fair question. But for other initiatives there are instruments and procedures recognized that are accepted by all states involved. The key element there is that no Western Balkan state claims leadership of such initiatives. The Berlin process is led by Germany, for example. Meanwhile, Serbia and Albania clearly lead the Open Balkans.

Critics also have a very basic economic argument in opposing the Open Balkan Initiative. Serbia is the best functioning state. It has the largest economy and the most competitive market, featuring an industrial base that is far more advanced than the rest of the region. It also sports a very competitive agricultural sector. All that means that Serbia would have an advantage and benefit most in a system like the one proposed by the Open Balkans Initiative. 

The counterargument from Open Balkan supporters is that the European Union and the common European market functions the same way and that the region would be better placed to enter the EU if it has regional integration first. If Kosovo and the other countries are afraid of competition with Serbia and its more advanced economy, how are they going to be able to swim in the far deeper economic waters of the European market? 

The answer to that question is that the European Union has certain policies through cohesion funds with which new member states are compensated for the losses they suffer when entering the European common market. In the case of the Open Balkans, can anyone say that Serbia will compensate Albania or Kosovo for the economic losses that will be created to local businesses and entire sectors like agriculture. 

Last but not least, the Republic of Albania’s government failed to properly consult with the Republic of Kosovo on the initiative. Currently, no political party in Kosovo supports Open Balkans. In fact, there is strong opposition by all in Kosovo to the idea. In jumping in partnership with Belgrade before consulting with Prishtina on the matter, Tirana has done its brethrens in Kosovo a great disfavor that is leading to divisions between Albania and Kosovo that the two Albanian states have never seen before.  


Tirana Times
By Tirana Times November 5, 2021 15:18