The EU Enlargement Reform Process: A new incentive for the Western Balkans and a green light to Albania and North Macedonia

Iordan Bărbulescu, PhD and Dragoș Ioniță, PhD candidate

National University of Political Studies and Public Administration (SNSPA) - Bucharest, Romania


Oliver Varhelyi presents the enlargement methodology proposal; Photo: European Union

The Prespa Agreement, signed in June 2018, as well as the repeated delay of the European Council’s decision to start EU accession negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia, had a far-reaching effect on EU enlargement policy, as it was known until the end of 2019. In the context of the current crisis of European solidarity, accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the recent reform of the enlargement policy, as well as the decision taken by the representatives of the Member States at the end of last week regarding the European path of the two candidate states give a fresh breath to both the enlargement process and the hopes of politicians and representatives of civil society at local level. What implications will this decision have and what are the next steps that need to be taken in order to accelerate the process of European integration of the Western Balkans?

Now that the EU is facing one of its biggest crises, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the discussion on enlargement policy may seem pointless. However, the EU’s enlargement is one of the organization’s engines for progress – on the one hand the process provides an overview of the importance that the EU attaches to the relations with the candidate countries, on the other hand demonstrating the ability of the European administration to address a wide scope of policies (the European acquis), as part of the screening and negotiations with candidate countries. The enlargement process also ensures a permanent connection of the candidate states to the European agenda (and to the benefits arising from it), regardless of the international / regional geopolitical context.

It is thus important that the EU enlargement in the Western Balkans be monitored, commented and analyzed from all perspectives (political, social and economic), in order to ensure its continuity and a European path for candidate and aspiring states. In most cases, the well-being of citizens and the well-being of society in these states depends on their relationship with the EU and how European and local political leaders can adapt to the circumstances and the way in which the cooperation between the two parties ensures the progress of the negotiations.

A new enlargement policy – a new perspective for the Western Balkans

The strong anti-enlargement coalition in the EU acted behind closed doors, (especially during diplomatic meetings) won another match, apparently a decisive one, in the 2018-2019 period. The much-discussed “enlargement fatigue” seemed to have reached its peak at the October 2019 European Council reunion – raising concerns about the regress that the enlargement policy was about to register in the region. But the hope for the continuation of the European path would be renewed with an unofficial proposal made by the political leaders in Paris…

Although the institutional outlook presented to Albania and Northern Macedonia for the 2017-2019 period was clear, the European Council meetings of 20-21 June and 17-18 October 2019 did not go according to plans and expectations, as France (and partially the Netherlands and Denmark) opposed the start of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, raising new doubts about the EU’s ability to “live up to its promises” and undermining once again the credibility of the organization in the Western Balkans. Following the clarification requests, received from both the Balkan leaders and the Member States, in November 2019, the French delegation to the EU launched a non-paper, aimed at clarifying Paris’ position towards the shortcomings of the current enlargement methodology. The document also proposed an enlargement process based on seven stages of negotiation, “more stringent conditions” that had to be respected by the negotiating candidates and the possibility of stopping / reversing the entire European path of states, in case of non-compliance with EU standards.

Exactly two years after the strategy for creating a credible enlargement perspective and increasing the EU’s consolidated commitment with the Western Balkan states, on February 5, 2020, the European Commission presented a new enlargement methodology, recognizing the need to improve and upgrade this process. Realizing the high degree of skepticism of the leaders from Paris, Amsterdam and Copenhagen, the proposal of the self-assessed “geopolitical” institution led by Ursula von der Leyen sought to offer solutions for four weaknesses of the current methodology (also highlighted in the non-paper proposed by Paris), thus offering new directions for the negotiations with Tirana and Skopje:

• more credibility for the enlargement process, by focusing on fundamental reforms (the rule of law, administration reform and economic development). The progress of each candidate would be analyzed according to the evolution of these parameters, which would clarify the directions of action for the negotiating teams on both ends;

• a strong political steer, by systematically involving the Member States in monitoring and reviewing the enlargement process. This decision may prove to be a double-edged sword, with Member States on the one hand being able to halt the candidates’ European path, as a result of problems in bilateral relations (see the now historical case of Croatia, whose accession process has been delayed by a border dispute with neighboring Slovenia). On the other hand, the new methodology would force Member States to recognize the progress made by the candidates, thus avoiding a possible arbitrary blockage of the negotiation process;

• injecting dynamism for the enlargement process, by grouping the negotiation chapters into six thematic clusters (similar to the French proposal, that referred to seven negotiating stages), the negotiations to be opened at the cluster level – the focus will be placed on the negotiations on the fundamental elements, they will be open the first ones and the last ones will be closed, and progress in terms of them will determine the overall pace of the negotiations. The organization of these clusters is also a key element, being important for the negotiating states to understand the priorities set by the Commission – if the reform proposal, presented by the French delegation emphasized the importance of the reforms focusing on the area of the rule of law, the Commission’s project rejects a hierarchy of priorities, but focuses on completing reforms in areas of fundamental issues (where the rule of law and the reform of democratic institutions occupy an important place);

• a higher degree of predictability of the enlargement process, through clarifications offered to the candidate states – the Commission will focus both on the expectations it has towards the local political leaders and on the consequences resulting from the lack of progress, thus ensuring a greater degree of clarity regarding the process’ course and outcome.

Beyond the similarities with France’s reform proposal (a sign that the Commission document is aimed at identifying a compromise solution), a key element of the enlargement policy reform process is given by the incentives promised to candidate states that are making progress in negotiations – a process of integration without accession is thus ensured, by including candidates in distinct EU policies, in the EU market and in EU programs. At the same time, the proposal comes with new means of sanctioning the stagnation / regress registered by each negotiating country, through the possibility of partial / total suspension of the negotiations, the reopening of some previously closed chapters or even the interruption / withdrawal of access to previously granted benefits (as a result of progress).

If the new methodology, accepted by EU political leaders, will be automatically implemented in the negotiations carried out by Brussels with Tirana and Skopje, the other two candidate states – Serbia Montenegro (under negotiation in 2012 and 2014 respectively) have the “opt-in” possibility, thus remodeling the current negotiation process according to the new methodology, through a request addressed to the Commission. Judging by the slow pace of negotiations (of the 34 negotiation chapters, Serbia currently has 18 open and only 2 closed, while Montenegro has opened 32 chapters, completing negotiations in only 3 areas), it is desirable that Belgrade and Podgorica to opt for a reform of the process – such a decision would ensure, on the one hand, a fairer application of the procedures, on the other hand, giving Brussels a clear signal about the commitment made by the political leaders of the two states. At the same time, an “opt-in” of the two states would ensure progress in key areas (covered by the new methodology), given that both Serbia and Montenegro have slipped from the democratic path – the 2018-2019 period, the two states registered restrictions on civil liberties, pressures on opposition parties, NGOs and media organizations focused on investigative journalism etc. Finally, the uniformization of the methodology would guarantee the overall follow-up and understanding of the enlargement process in the four candidate states, by comparing the obtained results and the incentives granted / withdrawn (depending on the context) to each candidate.

From two to four negotiating candidates – what is next for the Western Balkans?

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, last week, members of the EU Council and the European Council last week approved the start of accession negotiations for Albania and North Macedonia, thus transmitting a positive signal about the future of the enlargement process – the decision taken by the leaders of the 27 Member States demonstrate that the process has the support of the EU, even its most skeptical members. After 2 years of waiting, the efforts of Tirana and Skopje are rewarded, thus guaranteeing the credibility of the enlargement process and exiting in a pragmatic manner from the paradigm of “fatigue of enlargement”, injecting the much sought after dynamism.

Along with the reform of the methodology, the decision taken for the first time by video conferencing gives a new impetus to the enlargement process, putting pressure on both the newly accepted states, as well as on Serbia and Montenegro, the latter two being obliged to accelerate the reform process started long ago. If until now Belgrade and Podgorica have slowed (or even stopped) the pace of reforms, the message sent last week by European leaders forces the leaders in these countries to rethink their foreign policy priorities, investing more time and resources in a process that proves to be cost-effective for all parties involved. Therefore, constructive reforms are needed, which will nullify the decline of both states, and the pressure exerted by Tirana and Skopje (eager to rise to expectations) should be the ideal catalyst for progress.

In the case of Albania and Northern Macedonia, the green light received represents only the start of a new reform process, this time closely followed and analyzed by the Member States and the European Commission, according to the new agreed methodology. Following the agreement given by the EU Council, the Commission stated that preparatory work will start immediately, while focusing on the directions that Tirana should focus on in the near future, before the first intergovernmental conference – progress is expected in areas such as electoral and judicial system reform and in the fight against organized crime and corruption, as well as changes in the media law. In the case of North Macedonia, the newest NATO member, the progress of the negotiations is largely dependent on the outcome of the upcoming early elections, initially scheduled for April 12 and convened as a result of the disappointing results of the October 2019 European Council.

All these being said, the recently taken decisions do not represent an automatic opening of the negotiations, as the Commission needs to present the negotiating positions, which will be adopted later during a Council meeting. This process can be a long one (see the example of Serbia, where more than two years have passed between the opinion of the European Council and the opening of the first negotiation chapters). The current (domestic and international) political circumstances do not anticipate a different path for Albania or North Macedonia, whose citizens and political leaders will have to arm themselves with patience and demonstrate a real will to complete this complex process. If the current crisis of COVID-19 will realistically generate a series of delays (including here the most anticipated EU-Western Balkans Summit, which was to be held in Zagreb in May), we need to understand that the post-crisis situation will also be characterized by a high degree of uncertainty. But even so, the progress made by the four negotiating states in recent years should not be ignored, but used as a foundation for reinvigorating the enlargement process and accelerating it, when circumstances will allow this. The COVID-19 crisis does not represent a pause in EU-Western Balkans relations, as evidenced by the recent decision of the European Commission to support the states in the region, by allocating €38 million as an assistance package aimed at tackling the emergency situation in the region, caused by coronavirus. It is expected that this crisis, as well as the post-crisis reconstruction efforts (for which the Commission reallocates €374 million), will also contribute to the development of EU – Member States – candidate states relations, beyond the rigors imposed by the technical negotiation process.