Belgrade, June 6, 2016 – The role of the Member States in the EU membership negotiation process is becoming increasingly important - the enlargement process might be blocked or entirely brought to a halt if contentious issues are not solved bilaterally. This was the conclusion of the panel discussion “Member States’ Role in the EU Negotiation Process – Playing Cat and Mouse?”, organised by CEP and the European Policy Centre (EPC) from Brussels.
The opening remarks were given by Tanja Miščević, the Head of the Negotiating Team for Accession of Serbia to the EU, Dejan Jović, Professor at the Faculty of Political Science in Zagreb and former Advisor to the President of Croatia, Corina Stratulat, Senior Policy Analyst at EPC, and Nebojša Lazarević, Director of CEP. A discussion followed, with Srđan Majstorović, Deputy Director of the Serbian European Integration Office, Sonja Stojanović Gajić, Director of Belgrade Center for Security Policy, and Andrej Horvat, Project Leader at the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) as the main discussants.
Tanja Miščević stressed that the role of the Member States has increased as the acquis communauitaire expanded, and she maintained that the negotiation process is an excellent opportunity for Member States to put forth some of their specific, national, demands. Ms. Miščević, however, argued that the only manner in which bilateral challenges should be resolved is – bilaterally. The conditions within the negotiation process might at times seem like the “moving targets” due to, amongst others, internal politics of the Member States. Ms. Miščević went on by saying that Serbia prepared an overview of issues that might emerge at each of the stages of the negotiation process, but that it is impossible to predict when these issues might escalate. She also emphasised that “the bilateral resolution of outstanding issues is the best approach for a number of reasons – mainly in order to avoid the potential of an overburdened negotiation process and the creation of ‘bad blood’ between Member States.” Finally, she reminded the audience that this is not just a question of enlargement, but also of consolidation, of the EU.
Nebojša Lazarević pointed out that “the Member States have learned a number of lessons from prior waves of enlargement, and that they have realised that the countries of Southeast Europe are good at ‘feigning’ reforms and producing regulation – which has lead to tighter criteria and increased control of the process of reform implementation by the Member States.” He also stressed that Serbia should engage in communication towards the Member States’ general public in the process of negotiations - not just towards the governments. This is necessary in order to increase public support for Serbia’s accession, especially after the signing of the agreement and voting in the referendum. The role of Serbian diplomacy and the negotiation team is crucial in gaining support from the EU institutions, governments and Member State citizens – thus all the relevant actors should work together. In addition, this is where the importance of the role of the civil society organizations becomes evident, as they can act as advocates of Serbia in the Member States.
Dejan Jović, Professor and former Advisor to the President of Croatia, pointed to the similarities between the Croatian and Serbian paths towards accession, and noted that Croatia also encountered blockades by Member States (primarily by Slovenia, but also by the Netherlands and the UK). “What matters is that the process of negotiations results in an increased number of friends and a smaller number of enemies” said Jović, and reiterated that each Member State has the ability to block any other state. For example, Greece, to this day, has unresolved issues with the FYR of Macedonia. France was adamant in blocking United Kingdom’s attempts to join the Union during the 1960s. Austria and Italy had a number of contentious, bilateral, issues at the time of Austria’s accession in 1995. Jović said that the Member States feel as if they cannot independently make decisions regarding important questions, and thus use the process of accession to stress some of the issues that are relevant to their national interests. Jović explained that: “The current changes in Croatia’s politics is partially caused by the relatively weakened state of the Croatian government, that might be ascribed to the weakened image of the country due to a resurgence in nationalism and image problems that might come with this – but that is not the whole story. The main reason is that the other 27 Member States were interested in the continuation of the enlargement process. The big question is whether those 27 Member States, and Croatia as the 28th member, will continue to show this interest – and this largely depends on Serbia’s position.” While the process of negotiations is ‘unblocked’ at the moment, and Serbia is due to open chapter 23 in June of this year, as was planned, Mr. Jović claims that despite “the good news from Zagreb and the removal of the blockade, a number of similar events will follow, and they might not be initiated by other Member States – not just Croatia, as the process will serve as a vehicle for the resolution of other bilateral issues.” He thinks that Kosovo will emerge as the biggest issue in Serbia’s accession to the EU, one that will be significantly harder to overcome than its disputes with Croatia, and that there is a need for a timely strategy for the resolution of this issue.
Corina Stratulat presented a study that the EPC recently published - an issue paper based on 17 case studies of Member States’ attitudes towards EU enlargement. The results of this study point towards a “nationalization” of the enlargement process due to the growing focus on interstate bilateral relations – the Member States are increasingly attempting to control the process and national agendas have started to dominate it. Ms. Stratulat highlighted that it is hard to predict which issues will arise with the Member States and that bilateral issues can be solved only through the strengthening of cooperation and fostering of dialogue - with the goal of better understanding of the reasons that lead to blockades as well as the improvement of relations – both between friends and adversaries. She stressed that the setting of high criteria can be well-intentioned, but also counterproductive at times, and that the Western Balkan states should realize that they have many shared mutual interests, as well as problems, making cooperation, dialogue and exchange paramount.