The Berlin Process initiative and its ability to help its Western Balkan member states with countering the rise of extremism
Berlin Process – Background.
Berlin Process is a project that has been initiated during the 2014 Berlin Conference. The initiative itself serves as a tool to promote the integration of the Western Balkan region into the European Union. Indeed, the Berlin Process has been thought of as a useful EU mechanism that could help to maintain regular dialogues with the European countries from South-Eastern Europe which have not joined the Union yet. Additionally, the initiative, which incorporates the EU economic and developmental assistance to the Western Balkans was also meant as an incentive for the region. However, over the past few years, the popularity of the European Union has significantly diminished and pockets of Euroscepticism have largely increased in likely becoming the Union’s member states.
The process itself consists out of social, political and economic aspects. Within the framework of these three pillars, the initiative aims to produce projects in the areas of transport, infrastructure, economic cooperation (businesses and small companies) across the countries of the Western Balkan region. These projects are then funded by the budget comprised of the EU and the EU member states resources pooled together for this purpose.
Along with the high-level summits between all members of the initiative, important policy-making debates and meetings of governmental officials, Berlin Process is also responsible for organising civil society organisations (Civil Society Forum of the Western Balkan Summit Series), youth organisations (Youth Forum) and business associations (Business Forum).
The Berlin Process emphasizes multilateral dialogue and diplomatic ties as well as cooperation between the EU and the Western Balkan countries on the most pressing issues that the region grapples with. The Union’s assistance to the region plans to promote the EU in the eyes of the Balkan population. Angela Merkel has been an outspoken proponent of the project, which has been her priority, especially during her third cabinet. The Process focuses on revitalising ties between the EU and the Southeast European countries. Currently, the Western Balkan countries that take part in the Berlin Process are all either candidates or potential candidates for the EU membership. These are Montenegro, Serbia, North Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. The following EU member states are engaged in the initiative: Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Greece, Germany, Italy, Poland, Slovenia and so the UK as a former EU member state.
Security Climate in the Western Balkans.
Central Eastern Europe (CEE) and the Western Balkan (WB) regions recently have been witnessing the rise of both extreme right networks and the radical Islamic groups, which engage in terror attacks in Europe. Traditionally, it has been deemed that it is the majority of the Western European population who suffers from the terrorist threat the most. However, due to the migration flows, relative lack of counter-terrorism mechanisms in the CEE and WB region and the popularity of the far-right, radical groups have been keen on expanding their reach over to the East for a few years now. Especially, the Western Balkans suffer even more frequent threats of violent extremism. As a result, the region which is considered to be fairly Eurosceptic has recently been more prone to cooperate with the European Union on the issues of security and counter-terrorism.
Moreover, the region is still grappling with the consequences of the 1990s conflicts which had shaken the area for decades. While the countries are still working towards achieving lasting stability and a complete economic, social, cultural and political constancy, it has been reported that over 1.000 foreign fighters from that very region have been radicalised and recruited to join radical groups in Syria and Iraq only between 2012 and 2017. Combined with the fact that the WB region has been experiencing a surge of radical Islamic groups along with far-right networks, such developments have shown that the region is attractive to radical groups. Also, the fact that the Western Balkans are located between Central Asia/Middle East and Europe makes it more likely for the terrorist networks to deem consolidating presence in the area. This appears to be an important strategic objective to ensure the point of entry between radical networks from Asia and the Middle East towards the rest of Europe. In this light, the Western Balkan region is not just suffering from terrorism but also assuring the area is protected from radical networks’ activities which is beneficial for the rest of Europe.
The Process and Fighting Terrorism.
Although it is desirable and necessary to counter-terrorism and improve regional security, any comprehensive mechanisms taking place on the EU level are quite complex and require a large amount of time to get implemented, after having passed through several layers of administrative processes. As a result, it is much easier to tackle the threat when working within a smaller group of countries. This makes the Berlin Process a potentially very effective forum. The main idea is to bring the member states together and deliberate on a common counter-terrorism strategy, relevant to the Western Balkan situation.
Indeed, the advantage of the Berlin Process is that it is an initiative that works mainly as an element of the EU structure, therefore, it benefits from the reach and resources but also, due to the smaller membership, the decisions-making framework doesn’t need to go through all 27 member states. As a result, deciding on security and CT policies on the WB region through Berlin Process may be much faster than if it was to happen on the EU institutional level.
Judging from the growing immediacy of the extremist threat problem in the Western Balkan region, it is likely that the initiative will continue to devote more and more time and resources to tackle terrorism in the region. This will also serve as a powerful incentive to attract the Western Balkan countries to seek EU membership more actively.
Ever since 2016, topics such as counter-terrorism and anti-corruption have appeared more and more frequently on the Berlin Process summits’ agenda. So far, however, no practical policy recommendations or mechanisms have resulted out of the talks on the topics. Nonetheless, during the 2017 Trieste Summit, it has been noted that counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism are problems, which should not only be seen as ones inherent to the Western Balkan region but rather that these are shared pan-European challenges affecting population across the continent regardless of geographical location or status of the EU membership. Moreover, it has been said that the only effective manner in which Europe can counter this challenge is twofold: first of all Western Balkans have to be proactive in putting efforts to counter-terrorism but also European countries need to assist them with this aim. After all, terrorism in Europe is a shared problem and its countering should be the European shared responsibility.
Increased awareness of the terrorist threat in the region during the summits and talks of the Process members are certainly positive developments although, to produce lasting stability and counter-radicalisation in the region, practical tools and mechanisms to counter-terrorism need to be implemented. The relative lack of effort in this area stems from several factors such as lack of coordination, precedence of regional law enforcement ownership of CT issue due to lack of relevant training and communication, as well as little wider, ‘channel vision’. Indeed, in 2017 Western Balkan interior ministries launched the Integrative Internal Security Governance (IISG) process, which is meant to coordinate external assistance to the region on issues such as countering terrorism and to send it to the relevant policies dealing with the issue. The process is regional within the scope but it is recognized and supported by the EU. The IISG process has a lot of merit and potential at focusing the efforts solely on pooling regional but also, through the EU support, international efforts with the one specific aim – to counter-terrorism in South-Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, the initiative has only been mentioned a few times during the past few Berlin Process summits without any plans to explore these mechanisms as a potentially very useful option to tackle the issue.
At the moment, countering terrorism efforts in the Western Balkans are still taking a major place on a regional scale, with IISG being one of the examples of prioritisation of CT dialogue amongst the WB rather than expanding it onto the European-wide scale. The regional cooperation to tackle the issue takes priority over cooperating on a Berlin Process level as well. Nonetheless, this is not to say that Berlin Process does not bring benefits to the counter-terrorism effort in the region. In fact, The Berlin Process Security Commitments Steering Group has recently been established to improve the adherence of the Berlin Process to its security and CT – related commitments to the Western Balkans. Additionally, within the framework of the Berlin Process, a joint agreement on information sharing has been signed by the interior ministers of the member’s countries of the process. This declaration is of immense importance as it requires national authorities to work on improvements of their communication mechanisms as well as ensuring transparency and accountability in terms of information and data. This has always been relatively challenging, especially for the security agencies in the Western Balkans.
In fact, the London Summit in 2018 witnessed much more frequent mentions of counter-terrorism and violent extremism than earlier meetings, with the issue appearing more significantly on the summit’s agenda than the previous years. 2019 Poznan Summit followed suit with a much more extensive focus on assuring that Western Balkans do not become a point of entry for the radical groups travelling Westwards. If the future summits will not break away from this ever-increasing prioritisation of the need to counter terrorism in the Western Balkans, it is likely that the future conferences will keep on placing counter-terrorism on their agenda as a priority. The question that remains is whether the Berlin Process-countries will be able to take the issue a step further by transforming the agreements into policy changing and practical mechanisms to counter the extremist threat.
Achieving the goal is not impossible. Berlin Process starts from an advantageous position as it is much smaller in the size than the European Union. Pushing through any binding decisions is thus much easier on the Berlin Process level than it would have been on the EU platform. For practical mechanisms or policies to result from the Process’ deliberations, the involved member states need to be more willing to cooperate and pooling resources relating to defence and counter-terrorism. Historically, both the CEE and the WB region’s countries have always experienced a rather high level of protectionism in relation to any matter linked to their national police, law enforcement and defence/security agencies. As a result, to implement any binding policy or common strategy on CT between the WB countries and the 6 EU members in the process, the involved states need to be flexible and prone to cooperate as well as trustfully communicate amongst each other with a high degree of transparency.
Despite its shortcomings, it is undeniable that the Berlin Process is a useful tool that Western Balkan groups and some of the EU member states integrated into the region, which has been considered a regional issue before, can now be deemed and tackled on a wider European level. In this sense, Berlin Process is nowhere near being obsolete in also working to counter terrorism in the Western Balkans together, considering a shared responsibility. The initiative brings the Western Balkans closer together to the EU and so, the regional problems can be assisted by the Union. Also, the integration promoted regular dialogue and communication. Additionally, the EU resources, reach and specialised bodies are very capable to address and assist the Balkan region in his respect.
Still, there is a lot of space to manoeuvre within the initiative in order to utilise the Berlin Process’ potential to fight extremism to its fullest, with the need to prioritise the EU-WB CT engagement as one of the priorities for the upcoming years and decades.