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In the context of the EU’s enlargement policy, the European Commission is the institution which should be in the driver’s seat, leading the development of the policy and proposing changes and improvements of the approach. Its annual reports analyse the state of play and progress across the fundamental reform areas as well as individual negotiating chapters for all candidates and potential candidates. As such, they are the primary source for evaluating these countries’ progress in the EU integration process. Moreover, they should serve as a reliable basis for the decisions by the EU Council to make or withhold advancement of individual aspirants towards membership, including opening of negotiation clusters and closing of individual negotiation chapters.
Yet, it is doubtful whether the Commission’s monitoring and assessment mechanisms are effective enough to allow it to act in the expected capacity. In practice, the Council has frequently disregarded or decided not to follow up on the Commission’s recommendations based on these reports. This is largely due to the fact that member states continue to demonstrate a notable level of mistrust when it comes to the Commission’s approach to reform monitoring and assessment. Such an inter-institutional rift in the EU sends inconsistent and even conflicting messages to (potential) candidates, thus undermining the credibility of the enlargement policy and discouraging domestic reform processes.
The 2020 Revised enlargement methodology (REM) was announced as a game-changer in terms of how assessment and monitoring are conducted, as the Commission took upon itself to increase the use of third-party indicators. Three years later, however, the Commission’s approach has remained largely unchanged. While clusterisation of chapters was introduced to simplify and streamline the negotiating process, most other elements of the REM have remained only ideas on paper, without proper operationalisation. As a result, countries in the region continue to stall with reforms on their path to the EU, prompting civil society organisations to actively and repeatedly call for more consistent and evidence-based monitoring and assessment, in order to render the annual reports more objective, accurate, impartial, verifiable, and comparable. It is, therefore, crucial to improve the Commission’s approach to tracking reforms and ensure greater credibility of its reports, especially in face of geopolitical turbulence in and surrounding Europe. This paper explores how the Commission’s approach can be improved, reviews several civil-society-led reform monitoring initiatives, and proposes a way forward with greater utilisation of their results as objective third party indicators in line with the REM.