The European Commission is driving the enlargement process forward during the coronavirus crisis but the recent 2020 enlargement package shows that the candidate countries in the Western Balkans are not ready for accession. Turkey is also covered by the package but is currently out of the picture.
In the beginning of February, the Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, presented an enhanced methodology for reviving the dormant EU accession process although he admitted that the proposal was rather a new process of procedures with much of the same elements as before.
The annual enlargement package, consisting of a communication of EU’s enlargement policy and country or progress reports on each candidate country, has been published in Spring in recent years but was postponed to Autumn this year because of the COVID-19 outbreak. In the meantime, a virtual EU-Western Balkans Summit was held in May in Zagreb.
When he presented the package (6 October), Commissioner Várhelyi expressed a certain optimism that each candidate country would overcome remaining obstacles and meet all conditions in their path towards EU membership.
“From the start of the mandate of this Commission, my aim has been to make sure both our partners in the Western Balkans and our Member States regain trust in the accession process.”
He referred also to the new methodology. “Our rigorous but fair assessments presented today detail where the countries stand with the reforms, with clearer guidance and recommendations on the future steps. Their dynamic implementation will speed up their progress on EU path and bring long-lasting results.”
A Commission spokesperson told The Brussels Times on Friday that the enhanced approach to the accession process is reflected in the country reports. The assessments and recommendations for the countries are clearer and more precise. The reports are more transparent on the state of play of the accession negotiations and the extent to which fundamental reforms are being implemented.
All this was of course also the ambition in the past. A major change is that the member states have been more closely involved this year. “They were consulted during the process and provided input and expertise, including through their embassies on the ground.”
In parallel, the Commission presented an Economic and Investment plan to spur the candidate countries’ long-term recovery after COVID-19 and accelerate their economic convergence with the EU. The plan will be supported with up to €9 billion from the Instrument for Pre-Accession Instrument (IPA) for 2021-2027, subject to the adoption of the budget by the European Parliament and the Council
The funding is in form of grants. Contributions from other donors and loan guarantees have the potential to mobilise up to €20 billion of investments in the next decade.
Many of the projects are cross-border and regional and will benefit the whole region. The Commissioner highlighted the need to link up the capitals in Western Balkans by road and rail and phase out the fossil fuelled power plants in the region. He mentioned the integration of the Roma population as a social challenge which also will be funded.
The IPA instrument for next budget period will not have any national allocations from the onset. Funding will be allocated taking into account performance and a "fair share" principle. The programming framework will define the key areas of support and transparent criteria to fund them, in particular expected impact and progress on accession criteria.
As every year, the Commission is lambasting the candidate countries for not meeting their commitments or backsliding in their reform processes. According to the Commission, the rule of law is the key benchmark against which their progress towards membership is assessed by the EU.
In the area of the Judiciary and Fundamental Rights, progress has varied considerably over the last year. Only Albania and North Macedonia, the two countries that are eagerly waiting to start accession negotiations towards the end of this year, made “good progress.” Serbia and Montenegro, the only countries where negotiations are on-going, made no respectively limited progress in this area.
Kosovo, a potential candidate country, made “some progress” but not Bosnia and Herzegovina, another potential candidate. In Turkey, which have been negotiating on accession for years, there has been “serious backsliding” since the failed coup attempt in 2016.
The situation is even worse in all countries as regards the fight against corruption and respect of freedom of expression. The Western Balkans and Turkey continue to show “widespread corruption” and no or limited progress when it comes to freedom of expression.
The candidate countries continue also to be stuck in the rivalries of the past and unsolved bilateral issues. After having solved the name issue with Greece, which for years held back the start of enlargement negotiations for North Macedonia, the country is now facing another dispute with its neighbour Bulgaria on language and history.
Good neighbourly relations and regional cooperation remain essential elements of the enlargement process, says the Commission. “We encourage both sides to redouble their efforts to find a solution to the pending issues.” It is up to North Macedonia and Bulgaria to engage directly – the Commission will not facilitate the dialogue for them as it is doing between Serbia and Kosovo.
The draft negotiating frameworks for Albania and North Macedonia were presented by the Commission to the Council in the beginning of July but the frameworks have not been made public. The discussions in the Council on the frameworks are ongoing and the spokesperson declined to comment on them.
After the frameworks have been adopted by the Council, the first intergovernmental conferences (IGC) will be convened to signal the formal launch of the enlargement negotiations. Commissioner Várhelyi was hopeful that such a conference will be held before the end of the German EU presidency this year.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is more distant from EU membership than any other country in the Western Balkans. It exited the Balkan war in the 90-ies, when it suffered from ethnic cleansing and war crimes, with an extremely complicated governance system based on the Dayton Accords, which makes it ungovernable and preserves the wounds of the past.
According to the Commission, the country needs to address 14 key priorities to progress on its EU accession path, the most urgent one being electoral reform. Without mentioning the Dayton Accords, the Commission writes that Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to fundamentally improve its legislative and institutional framework and bring it up to European standards.
With Turkey, enlargement negotiations have effectively come to a standstill and no further chapters are considered for opening or closing. Because of the current tension with Turkey on its activities in the Eastern Mediterranean, the European Council decided in the beginning of October to launch a "positive political EU-Turkey agenda” with high-level dialogues in a separate track from enlargement.
The Brussels Times