The European Commission presented on Wednesday a proposal for reviving the dormant EU accession process and driving it forward.
The proposal follows the Council decision last October not to open negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia despite the Commission’s opinion that the two countries had delivered on reforms and were ready for starting negotiations.
At a press briefing (5 February), the new Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, described the proposal as a process of procedures rather than a methodology. Várhelyi, a lawyer and former head of Hungary’s representation to the EU, admitted that the proposal is a mix of new elements and much of the same.
For France and other Member States. that had opposed the Commission recommendation and demanded a review of the enlargement methodology, the proposal it is probably enough. A Council decision on open negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia will likely be taken in March or by the latest ahead of the European Union-Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb on 6-7 May.
The proposal is based on four legs. Firstly, the accession process needs to be more credible and build on trust, mutual confidence and clear commitments by the EU and the Western Balkans. Secondly, it requires a stronger political steer and involvement by the Member States in the monitoring of progress.
Thirdly, in what appears as the most innovative element in the proposal, the Commission proposes to make the process more dynamic, by grouping the 32 negotiating chapters, which make up the EU legislation (the so-called acquis), in six thematic clusters.
The first cluster includes “fundamentals” such as the rule of law chapters, the functioning of democratic institutions and public administration reform as well as the economy of the candidate countries. The other clusters are internal market; competitiveness and inclusive growth; green agenda and sustainable connectivity; resources, agriculture and cohesion; external relations.
Negotiations on each cluster will be opened as a whole – after fulfilling the opening benchmarks - rather than on an individual chapter basis. Negotiations on the fundamentals will be opened first and closed last and the progress on these will determine the overall pace of negotiations.
The process will also become more predictable. By the use of sticks and carrots, the Commission will provide greater clarity on what the EU expects of enlargement countries at the different stages of the process and also the negative consequences when there is no progress. The process might even reverse if there is backsliding in the reforms, with assistance suspended and chapters reopened.
This not the first time the Commission has revised its approach to preparing the six Western Balkans countries for membership while avoiding moving the goalposts. In what it called a more rigorous approach, it introduced some years ago a benchmarking mechanism for assessing all chapters, in particular those on the rule of law and good governance.
Building on lessons learned from previous enlargement rounds, the new approach introduced then started from the need for solid track records in these areas. Tackling them early in the process would give maximum time to ensure that reforms are deeply rooted and irreversible after accession.
Or that was the intention. Studies showed that the benchmarks were not fully developed – not even for Montenegro and Serbia, the two “frontrunners” in Western Balkans that have entered the formal negotiation phase – and should be more specific and outcome-oriented. Overall, there was a gap between the expectations from the benchmarking and actual results.
This time the Commission aims at making the requirements for EU membership clearer to the candidate countries, involving them more in EU programmes before accession, review the fora where negotiations take place and, by the clustering of chapters, make the negotiations more comprehensive and effective.
Montenegro and Serbia, the two candidate countries that already are negotiating, will continue to do so on the basis of the current framework but are offered the option to apply the new procedures. A candidate country which is absent in the proposal is Turkey. Nor did the Commissioner mention Turkey during his press briefing.
The North Macedonian representation to the EU did not respond in time for this article for a request for comments but the first reaction from Albania to the Commission proposal is positive.
Migena Baholi, Minister Counsellor at the Albanian mission to EU, described the proposal as “a solid contribution to effectively prepare the countries of the Western Balkans for their future EU membership.”
She told The Brussels Times that Albania has made further progress on the key priorities for the opening of negotiations and expected that it would be reflected in the Commission’s updated reporting. On 14 January, a cross-party agreement was reached on the way forward on an inclusive electoral reform, in line with OSCE-ODIHR recommendations.
In the past there has been proposals that horizontal public administration reform should become a chapter in its own right. A Commissions spokesperson told The Brussels Times that while it will not formally become a chapter in the accession negotiations, it will be treated in a similar way as part of the fundamentals cluster.
“The Commission's proposal reconfirms the central role that public administration reform plays among the fundamentals of the enlargement process,” he explained. “Progress on the fundamentals will determine the overall pace of negotiations. In this sense, public administration reform will be on an equal footing with the other fundamentals.”
According to the proposal, Member States will become involved in the monitoring of progress in the candidate countries. Does the Commission foresee joint monitoring missions?
“The Member States will contribute more systematically to the accession process, including with experts on the ground to monitor and will also be able to review and monitor and advise the overall progress more regularly, for example through the provision of experts for peer review missions,” he explained.
At the same time, the Commission’s cooperation with OECD through its programme for Support for Improvement in Governance and Management (SIGMA) will continue. “SIGMA plays an important role, in particular in the area of public administration reform.”
A question many ask is whether it will take more time for a candidate country to join the EU with the proposal. Has the Commission tried to compare and calculate the time in some kind of negotiation scenario?
There is apparently no simple answer to this question but the Commission expects that the proposal will makes it easier for the candidate countries to make progress in meeting requirements of membership, in particular implementing far-reaching reforms and aligning with EU rules and regulations.
“Our objective is to help the countries to move faster on reforms. The conditions to join the EU are the same for all countries and the speed depends on the time they take to meet the criteria.”
The proposal is labelled “A credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans”. Asked by The Brussels Times if the proposal was only intended for the Western Balkans, the Commission spokesperson assured that Turkey is a key partner for the EU and remains a candidate country.
However, according to the spokesperson, Turkey has continued to move further away from the EU. In June 2018 the Council noted unanimously that Turkey’s accession negotiations have therefore effectively come to a standstill and no further chapters can be considered for opening or closing. The underlying facts leading to this assessment still hold.
“The methodology adopted by the Commission focuses on the Western Balkans and is in the first instance to inform the preparation of future negotiating frameworks with Albania and North Macedonia. A number of elements could also apply to Serbia and Montenegro, with which accession negotiations are currently on-going, and these will be discussed with them.”
“The Negotiating framework with Turkey predates those of Serbia and Montenegro and differs in important ways. Would the Member States establish that the circumstances with Turkey have fundamentally changed, we would then consider the question of whether the current basis for negotiations could be revisited or improved.”
The Brussels Times