The EU Commission released new proposed rules on February 5 which substantially modify the current Enlargement process but also allow EU member states to stop any accession aspirant seen as unreliable in accession negotiations or even backsliding on reforms.
This is a substantial victory for French President Emmanuel Macron who froze the accession plans of Albania and North Macedonia last October in order to reform the process; it also underscores France’s drive to take control of major EU political developments from Germany, after Brexit. It remains to be seen if the new procedures will serve to unblock the accession pathway for Albania and North Macedonia which many observers feel is possible at upcoming EU Summits that focus on the subject.
Political repercussions in Tirana and especially Skopje, in the middle of an election campaign, are still unfolding.
A more dynamic and political accession process
Presenting the Commission’s proposal at a press conference February 5, Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi said, “the whole process needs to be more credible, more predictable, more dynamic and more political.” Varhelyi also asserted that the purpose of the proposal is to re-establish the credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said February 5 the proposal constituted a “good message” to North Macedonia and Albania, which were both massively disappointed when they were turned down for opening talks last October, and elections were quickly called in North Macedonia in response, to be held in April 2020. “EU Enlargement is a WIN-WIN situation,” von der Leyen tweeted.
Geopolitics versus reform
In the EU’s new post-Brexit reality, some member states are concerned that if the EU doesn’t offer a clear path towards accession, the countries in the Balkan region could reverse course and seek better relations and strategic ties with Russia, Turkey, or China, right in the EU’s backyard. Despite this unsettled background, some member states want to slow any EU expansion for those aspirant countries that may not be ready to take on full commitments on such issues as corruption and the rule of law, even though it has been clearly demonstrated that EU membership in itself does not guarantee sustained progress on these concerns.
The Commission’s new proposals are still subject to debate and potential reformulation.
The proposed plan is to be discussed by EU member states to have it prepared for formal adoption at a Brussels summit in March, ahead of the Zagreb summit with Western Balkan leaders on May 6-7, a key agenda item of the current Croatian EU Presidency (Croatia was the last new country to join the EU, back in 2013).
As currently presented, the proposals do not apply to ongoing accession talks with Serbia and Montenegro, but those countries may be given an opt-in choice if they so desire and attractive economic incentives to do so are planned.
Late last year nine EU countries (Austria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland and Slovenia) responded to France’s earlier written proposals to overhaul the existing process, arguing that North Macedonia and Albania needed to get the green light by March 2020 even if the rules were under review, essentially undercutting France’s key strategic objective of requiring deep structural reforms in the aspirant countries upfront. From the new document, it appears the Commission has ruled in France’s favour and ignored the major nine-country attempt to undercut Paris.
In the draft document, titled “Enhancing The Accession Process — A Credible EU Perspective for The Western Balkans,” the Commission proposes EU member states “contribute more systematically to the accession process, including via monitoring on the ground through their experts, through direct contributions to the annual reports, and through sectoral expertise.”
“The Member States will also have the opportunity to review and monitor overall progress more regularly,” the draft states.
Organisationally, to inject more dynamism into the negotiations, the Commission plans to “cluster” the different negotiating chapters into six groups, with the option for countries to open negotiations in different policy areas simultaneously and to close reforms in different chapters within one year.
The proposal is divided into four sections covering these core issues:
- More credibility;
- A stronger political steer;
- A more dynamic process;
- Predictability, positive and negative conditionality
Ultimately the document’s final section is the “big stick” in this reform proposal, as anyone who witnessed “conditionality” in the Eurozone financial crisis can attest.
Provisions are included that will allow the accession process to be slowed or suspended if an accession aspirant country’s reform performance falters, and rule-of-law issues are to take centre stage, a value-laden term often used by sceptics to denigrate the democratic character of the Western Balkan nations.
France is said to be insisting that viable procedures for “reversibility” are built-in to the new procedures, which if agreed, may allow Macron enough flexibility to approve starting talks with Tirana and Skopje in Zagreb.
Entire text available here:
Aspirant countries reactions muted so far
So far both Albania and North Macedonia have taken the high road in their reactions to the announcement of the new accession procedures they will have to navigate.
In particular, North Macedonia’s government will be facing a significant challenge in April elections from Eurosceptic opponents, who argue Skopje was betrayed by the EU despite meeting demands from Brussels, including changing its name to end North Macedonia’s longstanding Name Dispute with Greece in 2018. Clearly, these new Commission proposals will not help defang the Eurosceptics. Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov nonetheless reacted positively on Twitter:
“The accession process is about a positive transformation. More benefits for reformers and stronger penalties for backsliders based on a credible assessment is a good thing. The opening of the long-awaited accession talks with North Macedonia within a renewed process will be a double success.”
The government in Tirana issued a non-descript endorsement of the new proposals, but one Tweet from an Albanian journalist was perhaps more informative:
“How many member states would #EU have today if they had to fulfil the criteria from the new methodology?” #missionimpossible.