The Impact of the European Elections on Enlargement – Positive Signs, Uncertain Future

Credit: EEAS


07.06.2019 | Miruna Butnaru-Troncotă & Dragoș Ioniță

The latest weeks saw major developments in the Western Balkans’ path towards EU membership. While the results of the elections for European Parliament offer encouraging signs for the countries in the region, the Commission’s latest Enlargement Package launched later last week tends to tone down the expectations – at least for some of the countries expecting positive messages. The current outline presented by the Commission highlights the (already clear) existence of three categories of states: the ‘frontrunners’ (Serbia and Montenegro), the ’hopefuls’ (Albania and North Macedonia) and the ‘potential candidates’ (Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo). This separation does not imply that the Commission will stop approaching the region as a whole, but clears out the fact that EU enlargement will not be a “group process”, but rather a “regatta”. Nevertheless, these findings will have to be supported at the political level by the Member States and their leaders, who will meet at the end of this month in Brussels in order to decide the future of Albania and North Macedonia on the membership path. The following analysis argues that the future of the region is both in the hands of its leaders and in the hands of the main leaders of the EU, for the next June Council. Elections for the European Parliament – encouraging signs The results of May elections for the European Parliament bring new hope for the region as pro-enlargement parties and political groups remain in power in the future legislature. The provisional results of the elections show that the future European Parliament is going to be more fragmented than ever, as the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) lose ground, in favor of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA). Nevertheless, these results favor the continuation of the enlargement process of the EU in the Balkans, as none of the mentioned groups are opposing the accession of Western Balkan states. While the euroskeptic parties have managed to gain ground and win more seats than in the previous mandates of the EP, their lack of coagulation around different topics of European interest (including enlargement) poses no threat to the Western Balkans, especially as this is currently not a priority for any of the anti-EU parties / groups. Of course, the future withdrawal of British MEPs this autumn might partially influence this, as Great Britain was one of the biggest enlargement-friendly countries in the Council and in the Parliament, being able to counter-balance efficiently the anti-enlargement countries.  

Commission’s Enlargement Package: ambivalent findings, encouraging conclusions

Another major development of the past weeks is the newly published Enlargement Package, an annual set of Reports on the Western Balkans, issued by the European Commission, which highlights the developments in different aspects covered by the EU acquis. Confirming that a credible enlargement policy is a geostrategic investment in peace, stability, security and economic growth in the whole of Europe, on May 29, the Commission adopted its annual assessment of the implementation of reforms in the Western Balkan partners and Turkey, together with recommendations on the next steps for those countries. The comprehensive set of documents covers the entire region as it presents its reports on Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia and an opinion on Bosnia’s application for membership of the EU (together with an analytical report that reviews, for the first time, the situation in the country against all standards applicable to EU Member States).

According to the findings in the Reports and the declarations of the High Representative/Vice President Federica Mogherini and the European Commissioner for Enlargement, Johannes Hahn, Albania and Macedonia are the only ones in the area that meet the EU executive’s criteria to open accession talks, the institution issuing another formal recommendation in that sense. The EU-28 last year agreed to assess kicking off accession talks for both countries but only in June this year, and only under certain conditions, particularly improvements in the fight against crime and corruption. The final decision will be taken in the European Council due to take place at the end of this month.

When it comes to the highlighted issues, the countries in the Western Balkans can be separated into 3 main categories:
The countries awaiting the start of the negotiation process: Albania and North Macedonia
In North Macedonia’s case, this year’s Commission Report highlights “historic steps … to improve good neighborly relations”, with a special emphasis on the implementation of the Prespa Agreement with Greece. It also commends the conduct of the current government, which has “taken steps to restore checks and balances, and to strengthen democracy and the rule of law” in an inclusive and transparent matter. Another positive remark is that North Macedonia is now the only country in the region without bilateral disputes with neighbors (a landmark achieved both through the Prespa Agreement and the Friendship Treaty, signed with Greece and Bulgaria, respectively). This clears out the steps to be taken by the European Council, in June.

In Albania’s Report, the Commission takes on a more prudent approach, mainly due to the political crisis that has engulfed the country in recent months (prime-minister Edi Rama has reshuffled his cabinet in December 2018, followed by mass protests asking for his resignation). As such, the Commission finds mostly positive developments in areas vehemently criticized by the opposition from Tirana – fight against corruption and organized crime, as well as independence of institutions. While the justice reform is praised for its “concrete and credible results”, in the fight against organized corruption, Commission notes “good progress” in the adoption of legal context and on policy making. The establishment of specialized anti-corruption bodies is underway, while intensification of police operations to dismantle criminal organizations, resulting in multiple arrests and prosecutions, is also mentioned.

While this Reports highlight both positive and negative evolutions on all aspects covered by the EU-acquis, the final decision remains in the hands of the leaders of the 28 EU Member States. Therefore, the much-anticipated EU Council due to take place this month is crucial for both Albania and North Macedonia. Especially as the signs given by the leaders of France and the Netherlands tend to predict a “decoupling” of the two. In this scenario, the Prespa Agreement and the positive evolutions in the judiciary field will weigh heavily in Skopje’s favor, while Albania’s political crisis (followed by civil unrest from recent weeks and violent incidents), its unsolved bilateral issues with Greece and organized crime developments tend to discourage an optimistic approach towards opening the negotiation process.

The countries in the process of negotiating accession: Serbia and Montenegro
The only two countries that have so far opened accession negotiations are still closest to EU membership – but the pace of their reforms seems to have slowed, or even started moving in the opposite direction.

This is clearly highlighted in Serbia’s Report, where the document states that “there is an urgent need to create more space for genuine cross-party debate, in order to forge a broad pro-European consensus which is vital for the country’s progress on its EU path.” At the same time, despite achieving a modest progress in aligning with EU-acquis and economic development, as well as not taking the bulk of the blame for a blocked dialogue with Kosovo, the 2019 Report can be described as both extremely disappointing and worrying for Serbia – especially since it did not detect any progress in the freedom of expression (“no progress made”) and fight against corruption (“some level of preparation”).

In the case of Montenegro, the report still highlights issues like: weak and politicized institutions, impunity for the corrupted officials and misuse of public funds, state interference into media market and hostile actions towards critically oriented NGOs. Nevertheless, the document observes some progress being made in some progress in developing functioning market economy and moderate preparedness in the fight against organized crime, judicial system and public administration.

A study conducted by the European Stability Initiative shows that among all candidates, Montenegro remains the frontrunner of the overall Enlargement Package, scoring the best marks in most of the 33 acquis chapters analyzed. The small Adriatic state is closely followed by Serbia, while North Macedonia and (especially) Albania lag behind, having many chapters marked as being in “early stages” or with “some level of preparation”. In order to improve this marks, both administrations and political elites from all respective countries must step up their reforms in the fields of fight against corruption and organized crime, judicial system and fundamental rights and overcome especially bilateral issues that characterized the last decades.

Potential candidates for accession to the EU: Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo
Both Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina are assessed to be „at an early stage” in most of the key areas: justice reform, fight against corruption and organized crime and developing a functioning market economy. They remain on the ‘waiting list’ due to both domestic crises and EU internal divisions. The Reports also focused on specific challenges both countries face. For Kosovo, these are, of course, the situation in the North and its decision to impose 100% tariffs on goods from Bosnia and Serbia.

In the case of Kosovo, the Report does not offer proper explanations on what early, moderate or even advanced stage development means for a country, the decision to impose 100% tariffs overshadowing the progress made by Kosovo in different fields. Among the positives, the Report mostly mentions legislative reforms in context of fight against corruption and organized crime (a big plus), but also points at Kosovo’s efforts to manage migrations and reintegrate the families of terrorist fighters. The document also reiterated the urgent need for the EU achieve full visa liberalization with the country.

In the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Commission’s Opinion does not give recommendation on granting a candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina, a unwritten conclusion being that there is still much progress being awaited (from forming a functioning government and reform of the institutional framework to improving relations with countries in the region). However, such reforms are difficult to achieve when none of the political elites are advocating for change.

Although the exclusion of the Western Balkans from the agenda of Sibiu Summit of May 2019 (organized by the Romanian Presidency) can still be considered a sign for the region (especially as it mirrors the importance given by Bulgaria in Spring of 2018), Bucharest demonstrated its commitment towards the region’s integration, by organizing an international conference, aimed at addressing the most important aspirations of the youth in the region – improving connectivity and democratic participation, consolidating trust and fostering reconciliation efforts. The conference of May 28-29 also served as an excellent opportunity for Romania to share its own experience in promoting employment policies for youth and to exchange examples of good practices and “success stories” in areas such as digitalization, entrepreneurship, startups and innovation. All these developments helped both Romania and the Western Balkan states, presenting a new façade of the region and demonstrating that a bottom-up approach on enlargement and integration is also welcomed.

In order to conclude, we believe that after the publication of the Enlargement Package on 29th of May, it is high time for the EU Member States to transform these findings into a coherent political position, a process awaited especially by Tirana and Skopje, as this common EU position needs to accommodate the views of each state in the European Council (the decision needs unanimity). High expectations come especially from Paris, The Hague and Berlin, as political elites from these capitals have recently emphasized their position on the enlargement process. While Angela Merkel opposes a possible ‘land swap’ between Serbia and Kosovo, she advocates for “open and sincere” dialogue between leaders in the region (arbitrated by both France and Germany). On the other side, President Emmanuel Macron clearly stated the no enlargement of the EU should be carried out without a prior reform of the EU. But it’s unclear whether keeping the Western Balkans in the “waiting room” while arguing about reform is the best option – especially if we consider the fact that Russia and China are knocking at their doors. The recommendations of the Commission were not surprising, but all eyes remain for now on the June Council debates “behind closed doors”.