(Yet) another “credible EU perspective”?

Unboxing the European Commission’s new edition of carrots and sticks for the Western Balkans

After the EU failed to open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania in autumn 2019, the reform of the existing enlargement methodology was set as a priority. The French, as the instigators of this process, were the first to propose a model for the renewal of the negotiation process. Encouraged by this move, nine other EU countries made another joint proposal, echoing certain ideas that the French proposed. Yet, they insisted that consolidation of the EU should not be a precondition for the EU’s enlargement to the region. The European Commission was thus put on the spot to come up with an official proposal for a refreshed enlargement approach – and in only a couple of months. On 5th February 2020, the Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi officially presented the proposal, which we will unbox in this text.

The first overall impression of this document is that it is a small masterpiece of European compromise. The Commission has managed to put together a sensible, even innovative, proposal, while at the same time not aggravating any of the member states. It uses all the key words, especially those from the French proposal, and even accommodates some of the persistent demands of the Western Balkan civil society. Ergo, the narrative rightfully focuses on the fundamentals, that is, on the importance of rule of law, as well as the functioning of basic democratic institutions, public administration reform and economic governance. So far, civil society in the region has often warned that the existing rule-of-law negotiation framework has been ineffective when it comes to truly tackling the deeper issues of state capture and democratic backsliding. In this light, the Commission makes an important step forward by proposing roadmaps for two additional fundamental issues – functioning of democracy and public administration reform – to be developed side by side with the roadmaps for the two “traditional” rule-of-law chapters (23 and 24).

What appears to be the most innovative element of the proposal is the clustering of 33 out of 35 negotiation chapters into 6 thematic groups. The negotiations on clusters would now be opened at once, though individual chapters are still to be closed separately. Compared to following progress in dozens of individual technical chapters, communication of reforms and accession progress to citizens through thematic clusters might be easier and more intuitive. Clustering can also help focus reform efforts and the capacities of the candidates’ administrations. However, even if this may prove to be true, for the new packaging to be effective the key is likely to be proper enforcement of a few other major elements of this proposal.

One such key aspect is what the paper dubs “a stronger political steer,” which can indeed provide true dynamism for the process if all parties agree to use it for good rather than for evil. The recent turmoil among member states, instigated by the French insistence on reforming the process before it could go on, revealed deep differences of opinion among EU members on the question of further EU expansion. Therefore, by encouraging all actors on the EU side to speak with one voice, the Commission seeks to push the EU as a whole to reaffirm its genuine commitment to enlargement. By inviting member states to take a much more active role in the overall process, the Commission now seems to be telling them: “If you want to play a role in enlargement policy, take political responsibility for it!” Adopting this logic might help reveal which EU members are willing to step up their efforts (and even pay the bill) in support of EU enlargement, while it will also put on the spot those that only nominally support the process.  Moreover, by encouraging members to make the question of Western Balkans’ EU accession a matter of informed national debates, the Commission clearly wishes to give greater public legitimacy to the cause. The extent to which EU governments will engage with their citizens on this issue and address public perceptions will be a litmus test of their political courage. At the same time, the proposal envisages new means to instigate and check the devotion of the region’s authorities to the EU membership goal. These include regular annual assessments of public political commitment; annual inter-governmental conferences for each candidate as well as greater transparency within the accession process by both the candidates and the EU. Altogether, this promises to facilitate the “naming and shaming” of those who hold the process back, thus keeping governments publicly accountable.

Along with stronger political impetus, another precondition to ensure that clustered chapters will reinvigorate the process is a renewed incentives scheme, or “carrot” for the process. The region’s think tanks have argued that the existing process has fallen short of introducing short-term political rewards which would better align with the brief electoral cycles. Essentially, in terms of tangible benefits for both politics and the people of the region, once accession negotiations are opened there is little to show until the very point of accession. The new proposal makes an important – though insufficiently emphasised and vaguely spelled out – step in the direction of fixing this fault. It does so by announcing possible increases in funding and “phasing-in” to individual EU policies based on progress in negotiations. Yet, it can hardly go unnoticed that this is the part of the paper with the most numerous caveats and “buts”, including inconclusive phrases such as “while ensuring a level-playing field”, which casts doubts on the sincerity of these offers.

The “stick” in the proposal also has added power. Coupled with the newly defined approach for addressing the fundamental reform areas, the simplified procedure for applying reversibility instruments in cases of serious backsliding paves the way for rewarding genuine political will and, by the same token, punishing its absence. The previously existing reversibility instruments were barely ever invoked, whereas with the new approach they would become more automatised, giving the exclusive power of initiation to the Commission and requiring a “blocking minority” in the Council to counter such proposals. Similarly, the prospects of decreasing pre-accession assistance as a result of underperformance by a candidate government might help keep their actions in check. Yet, a crucial precondition for this mechanism to work is that the available funds for the Western Balkans are greatly increased, which would make them more significant in political terms.

While recognising that the Commission’s proposal primarily targets the countries lined up to open accession talks (particularly North Macedonia and Albania whose stakes are the highest at present) Commissioner Varhelyi has already pointed out that he would welcome Montenegro and Serbia opting in to the new methodology. The frontrunners of the integration process should start by carefully analysing the opportunities the new proposal offers. If they beef up their administrative capacities and focus on the key reforms as per the proposed clusters, 2025 might still be a realistic accession year. It could help if, at this point, the Commission and the member states were to offer the candidates realistically assessed target years, accompanied by biannual, independent (read: apolitical) assessments on whether they are progressing towards those targets (e.g. 2025) or if sluggish reforms have caused the target to move away (for example, to 2026). Such a process would additionally boost dynamics and provide clarity about the “blame” for delays in the accession process, which has too frequently been placed with the EU.

In view of the upcoming Zagreb Summit between the EU and the Western Balkans, the member states should embrace the Commission’s proposals, breathe political life into the enlargement policy and engage with the region’s leaderships and citizens in making the best out of the given momentum. Otherwise, the new decade in the region may be plagued by reform fatigue and disillusionment with the EU, creating new instability within the Union’s borders.