After few months from the European Council’s decision to not open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, the European Commission has come up with a revised enlargement strategy, in order to convince skeptical Member States of the Union to rekindle the enlargement process. Even if the Commission’s purpose to re-establish a credible EU perspective for Western Balkans and enhancing credibility and trust is of course positive, the methods of implementation remains unclear. However, in case of enlargement implementation of the necessary reforms is crucial, along with political willingness from both sides.
On 5 February, after less than a week from Brexit, the first ever departure of a country from the European Union, the European Commission has launched an ambitious reform concerning the enlargement process, especially towards the Western Balkans, with the aim to re-establish a credible EU perspective for the region. The Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, recalled that the EU enlargement to the Western Balkans is a top priority for the European Commission, and it represents a geostrategic investment for a stable, strong and united Europe.
This reform was forced after that Macron blocked the start of negotiations talks with North Macedonia and Albania – notwithstanding the painful compromises and reforms made by the two countries – at the October 2019 European Council and then in November released a non-paper called “Reforming the European Union accession process”, to overhaul the accession process. The proposal was based on four principles: gradual association, stringent conditions, tangible benefits and reversibility.
The plan of the European Commission
Commissioner Várhelyi highlighted that the Commission is working on three track: revising the enlargement methodology, opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania ahead of Zagreb Summit scheduled in May and, finally, a new strategy for economic development and investment in the Balkan region.
The aim of the revised methodology on enlargement is to improve and strengthen the process, without changing the condition to join the EU, that are set out in the Treaty on the European Union as the Copenhagen criteria.
According to the Commissioner Várhelyi, the enlargement process needs to be more credible, predictable, dynamic and, most of all, more political. Indeed, with this new procedure Member States will be involve more strongly and they will have tangible opportunities to monitor on the ground the process and affect the pace of negotiations.
The Commission, resuming the French non-paper, proposed to organize the negotiating chapters in six thematic clusters: 1) fundamentals, 2) internal market, 3)competitiveness and inclusive growth, 4) green agenda and sustainable connectivity, 5) resources, agriculture and cohesion, and 6) external relations. The cluster on fundamentals – rule of law, public administration reform and functioning of democratic institutions – will have a central role, and the negotiations of this cluster will be the first one to be opened and the last one to be closed, just to underline its importance for the EU path.
In case of sufficient progress, incentives like a closer integration of the country into EU policies and market or financial aid are foreseen. Nonetheless, the new plan includes the possibility for the EU to suspend negotiations with candidate countries and re-open previous completed negotiating stages, in case of prolonged stagnation or even backsliding, resuming once again the Macron’s proposal. Anyway, according to the Commission, when candidate countries meet the objective criteria, the Member States shall agree to move forward to the next stage of the process, respecting the merits-based approach.
This new methodology will be formalized into the negotiating frameworks for Albania and North Macedonia, with the possibility for Serbia and Montenegro, which already opened the negotiating process, to opt in if they wish.
Furthermore, during the presentation of the revised methodology, the Commission reiterated the recommendations to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania before the Western Balkans summit that will take place in Zagreb on 6-7 May.
Both North Macedonia and Albania welcomed the plan, together with most of the political groups of the European Parliament and most of the European Member States. Speaking at the Munich Security Conference, French President Emmanuel Macron said that the process must be clear and reversible and that negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania will be open once there is confidence that the process works.
Now, the ball is in the hand of Member States that will have to decide to endorse or not the proposal made by the Commission ahead of the Zagreb Summit. If the European Council takes a positive decision, it will task the Commission to present a draft negotiating frameworks with the two countries.
A credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans?
There is no doubt that for a long time, the accession process has remained important only formally for the EU and it has ceased, in practice, to be a priority for the European project. After a period of stalemate, these new proposals made by the European Commission represent a step forward in another direction.
However, as long as the European Union does not accept that enlargement is crucial not only for the Balkans but also for the Union itself, there will be no tangible improvements. This, of course, implies political will and unity among Member States, and this will not change until some countries that oppose enlargement will realize that blocking the accession process would pose a greater threat to their security and stability in the whole region.
Moreover, further delays in the enlargement process could led to a decline of enthusiasm and motivation and could become an excuse for the Balkan states to not deliver reforms, opening doors to foreign meddling in Balkans affairs.