French preference for reform of EU accession process holds water
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French preference for reform of EU accession process holds water

Friday, 20 December 2019
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
French President Emmanuel Macron is urging caution when it comes to admitting new members to the EU’s ranks.

The French President Emmanuel Macron caused consternation among his EU counterparts earlier this year when his opposition to allowing Albania and North Macedonia to take their first steps towards joining the bloc ended in a deadlock. Macron voiced concerns over the readiness of both parties to enter the EU, as well as making wider criticisms about the current protocol for managing the process of accession.

While critics have claimed that Paris is simply against enlargement of the EU in any sense, the November submission of a non-paper outlining the French vision for reform of the system shows that the Élysée is willing to discuss solutions as well as pinpoint problems. Given the democratic backsliding that has been witnessed in both Bulgaria and Romania subsequent to their accession, Macron’s ideas certainly seem to hold some value, while his qualms over the state of play in the new candidates are also right on the money.

Recent experience highlights deficiencies

Macron’s main arguments center on the tenet that the EU is a community rather than a market undergoing indefinite expansion. As such, he believes the framework of the accession needs to be revised to allow states to observe, participate in and benefit from different facets of EU infrastructure incrementally, rather than striving for the taxing (and perhaps unattainable) goal of adhering to its guidelines all at once.

Most crucially of all, France is also championing the inclusion of a “reversibility” clause in the accession process, which would allow Brussels to call off talks if it deems that the candidate no longer satisfies the requisite standards with regard to its governance. Such a clause could prove to be a very powerful stick to accompany the carrot of EU funds which make joining the bloc such an attraction proposition for many countries in the first place.

While Romania and Bulgaria acceded in 2007, neither has made significant progress in the intervening years. Bulgaria has struggled to implement any meaningful reforms to its judiciary system, with its Minister of Interior resigning in December 2015 over his frustration with the situation and no government completing its full four-year mandate since 2013. According to a 2016 Nations in Transit report, Bulgaria has actually deteriorated in almost all of its measurable criteria for democratic progress since joining the bloc.

Romania hardly fares any better. The government has been widely criticized for its attempts to water down anti-corruption legislation, sparking widespread protests across the nation. Meanwhile, the fight against graft took a major step backwards when Laura Kovesi, the chief anti-corruption prosecutor in the country, was sacked in July 2018. Kovesi had been responsible for a sharp rise in convictions of those abusing their powers and was named this year the first European Public Prosecutor.

Candidates hardly inspiring confidence

With those lessons still fresh in the mind, it’s hardly surprising that Macron is urging caution when it comes to admitting new members to the EU’s ranks. And while some progress has undeniably been made in the Balkan countries hopeful of accession, a clear-eyed view of the three most promising candidates reveals that the reforms appear to be merely skin-deep.

Montenegro, for example, is touted as a potential EU member in the making, but its own credentials are underwhelming. The most recent EU report on the country highlighted its lack of progress towards democratization, despite the ruling party’s attempts to spin the non-paper as an endorsement of its case. Per the report, journalists are routinely threatened, media sites hacked, human trafficking rings are given a free pass, and corruption is rife.

In 2015, Prime Minister Milo Đukanović and now President was elected “Man of the Year” by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). In power since the early 90s, Đukanović stands accused of running a billion-dollar cigarette smuggling ring with the Italian mafia (he was not charged by Italian prosecutors because of his diplomatic immunity), as well as helping his family buy a local bank on the cheap and use it as an “ATM machine” for personal gain. Worse, in February 2019 Dusko Knezevic, once one of the most powerful businessmen in Montenegro, released evidence which he claimed proves he has been providing secret cash to Đukanović’s DPS political party for the past 25 years.

No wonder NGOs in the country call Milo Đukanović the “the last European dictator”.

In neighbouring Albania for example, it’s been a case of one step forwards, two steps back at times. The country’s efforts to clamp down on criminal practices have seen it investigate 140 out of 800 judges for corruption, with 90 more having resigned or been dismissed to avoid the probe. This has left its Constitutional Court with just one acting judge and its Supreme Court with only two, all but hamstringing the judicial process.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Edi Rama is pushing forward with plans to implement regulatory controls on the online media which critics claim are tantamount to censorship. 15 Albanian rights groups and seven international organizations have campaigned against the laws, but Rama insists they will go ahead regardless. As a result, Albania fell eight places in the most recent Corruption Perception Index to constitute the 99th most corrupt country on the planet at present.

The other candidate recently disappointed by Macron’s judgement, North Macedonia, is also currently embroiled in its own corruption scandal. Katica Janeva, erstwhile head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office (SPO), was implicated in a €1.5 million extortion scandal alongside a national reality TV star and a wealthy businessman. The latter has already pleaded guilty, and while Janeva and Boki 13 (the disgraced celebrity) maintain their innocence, both are likely to face jail sentences. Trust in the system has evaporated and the SPO is in need of a solid revamp.

Accessional housekeeping imperative

Against this backdrop, it seems clear that Macron’s proposals are not only sensible, but in fact urgently needed. The current process for encouraging new members to join the EU is structured in such a way that countries are either crippled in their haste to comply or else simply make all the right noises to win approval, while shady business continues as normal behind the scenes.

There is a serious risk that by not attending to the shortcomings of the current accession process, the EU sets too low a bar for new nations to clear and jeopardizes its own moral compass as a consequence. Instead, it must get its own house in order before it invites in new guests, regardless of any promises made prior.