An Open Door: Can the New Methodology Revive the Political Will for Enlargement?

The new methodology for the enlargement of the European Union to the Western Balkans was published on February 5th. In the title of the eagerly awaited communication of the European Commission, the central place is again devoted to a "credible perspective". It is an appeal to the political leaders of the EU Member States and the Western Balkans to revive what was evidently missing in the process. The Commission correctly identified the main problems of the slow pace of accession so far and, as a skilled broker, found a balance between the various interests at stake. But the solutions it offers are not very innovative, they require concretization, it is questionable whether they facilitate or complicate the process, and - most importantly - they are no less immune to the (arbitrary) will of each Member State.

The Commission quickly did its homework after the absence of consensus on opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania last fall led the enlargement policy to the brink of collapse. The French, the most vocal opponents of enlargement before EU internal reform, soon responded to the disappointment and criticism of the "historical error" with a constructive proposal to reform the methodology of the accession process. Counter-proposals from the pro-enlargement member states, civil society and academia ensued, and European party groups also came out with their positions.

Similar to these variations on the subject, the Commission also starts from and largely co-opts ideas formulated by the French in the so-called non-paper in November. It thus introduces clustering negotiation chapters, rewards for reform champions and penalties for laggards, and promises greater politicization of the process. On the other hand, the Communication explicitly mentions the goal of full membership for the Western Balkan countries (Turkey is not covered), thereby responding to justified concerns in the region about reducing accession to a gradual association to certain areas of cooperation within the EU with no end in sight. Also, the French "no enlargement before EU reform" requirement has been omitted, and the Commission's clear intention is to coax the reserved Member States to approve opening negotiations with Northern Macedonia and Albania in March.

Unwraping the new packaging

The new methodology aims to make the accession process more predictable, credible, dynamic and to push it up on the political agenda. Greater predictability would be achieved by more clearly communicating EU expectations from aspiring countries, more precise and verifiable criteria for progress and tying the results to tangible consequences. As a reward EU offers accelerated integration and gradual integration of the aspiring candidate country into individual EU policies and programs and the European market, as well as increased funds and investments. In the event of stagnation or setbacks, the EU will be able to suspend negotiations in one chapter or overall, reopen already closed negotiation chapters, reduce available funds and withdraw the rewards given.

Along with reversibility, cluster is probably the new buzzword in the dictionary of European integration. Similar to the French proposal and counter-proposal from nine EU Member States, collecting related negotiation chapters into six thematic clusters is envisaged in order to speed up the process. Related chapters would jointly be opened, but would close individually, according to the completion of separate benchmarks, which ideally could happen within a year. This would mean that the negotiations could be completed in six years.

The rule of law remains at the heart of the process, in a cluster that opens first and closes last, with a focus on implementation rather than legislative measures. The necessary legislation is expected to be prepared before the cluster is opened and then the implementation results are monitored. Although the clusters follow a logical order, it is not necessary to close one to open the next one. This is a significant difference from the French proposal.

In order for the process to regain its credibility, it is necessary that all actors confirm the membership perspective with words and deeds. How governments of the countries in the region voice their political commitment to the EU integration will be regularly monitored in the annual reports, among political criteria. On the other hand, the lack of substantive reforms is also indicative of the intentions of the WB governments beyond any diplomatic rhetoric. The Commission also addresses the EU Member States more directly, asking them to refrain from abusing the enlargement process for the sake of other interests and to work with the European institutions to speak with one voice towards the region. How could clear, unique and unambiguous messages otherwise be sent?

Enlargement is placed high on the EU political agenda, and greater involvement of national and European leaders in steering and promoting the process is envisaged. Much emphasis is placed on strategic communication with citizens. Maximum use will be made of existing forums such as Stabilization and Association Councils, EU-Western Balkans ministerial meetings and summits will be regularly held, and Member States will be more closely and regularly involved in monitoring reforms. A good new mechanism is the organization of separate intergovernmental conferences with each country in the region after the publication of the European Commission's annual report to discuss the findings and agree on the dynamics for the coming year.

What does this mean for Serbia?

EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi has kept his promise to Serbia - the rules won’t change during the game. The new methodology does not apply to Serbia and Montenegro that are already in the negotiation phase. However, all the shortcomings of the process the European Commission seeks to address relate equally to these two countries - a slow, bureaucratic, unconvincing process with simulation of reforms by ticking the box, insufficient incentives and reprimands from the EU to the increasingly critical state of the rule of law, without a clear membership perspective. Although the intention for these countries to opt-in could be deduced from the Communication, it is up to them to make that decision.

This would foster positive competition in the region. Although the one-year deadline for the cluster seems too optimistic, negotiations could be accelerated, which entails a lot more work for national governments and administrations, but larger funds are a significant carrot. Of course, additional funds are pre-conditioned by great reform results. The current state of affairs in key areas such as fair elections, freedom of the media, judicial independence, effective oversight of the security sector, we are rather running the risk of earning reversibility. On the other hand, apart from the accelerated pace and this risk, nothing else would fundamentally change. Negotiations remain the same in scope, organized by individual chapters with separate benchmarks, the rule of law remains paramount - throughout the entire process, the criteria were already strict, and an imbalance clause was introduced already in 2012 allowing for further negotiations to be delayed in case of stagnation in chapters 23 and 24. It just hasn’t been triggered so far.

From the perspective of the new methodology (see infographic), Serbia has so far opened only the first cluster in its entirety, although it has been struggling with it a lot, it has opened four in part and has not yet reached the ‘Grean Deal’ cluster. Varhelyi explained to members of the European Parliament that Serbia and Montenegro could join the new system in selected clusters to accelerate economic reforms. It is not yet clear how this would be done, and whether it would be easier to completely switch to the new system instead of a combined approach.

Politicisation of the process as a double-edged sword

This is not the only question in lack of a specific answer. Although the overall message is positive, many instances in the document remain too vague and abstract, at the level of principles, and are expected to be operationalized in the coming period. The politicization of the process and the greater involvement of Member States in monitoring progress is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, more effective communication of the European perspective and regular high-level meetings are good signals for citizens who still find the process too technical, bureaucratic, insufficiently transparent, confusing and too long. On the other hand, enlargement policy was a marginalized topic in the European elections last year, with reason, brought forward largely by right-wingers and in a negative context.

The Union must do its best to explain to its citizens why joining the Western Balkans is in its political, economic and security interest in the current constellation of international relations. Instead, Member States’ governments have often yielded to skeptical national electorates in situations where it was crucial for the EU to speak with one voice. Or the enlargement was taken hostage by other interests. Probably both factors influenced the strict French veto in October - the upcoming local elections in the spring, the fight for a leading position within the EU in the mid of Brexit and the transition of political leadership in Germany, the insistence on internal EU reform that puts enlargement on hold.

Apart from urging Member States to refrain from such practice, the Commission cannot do much more to prevent it. It needed Member States’ support for the new methodology, so it had to guarantee them greater role in the management of the process and didn’t dare to raise the issue of switching to decision-making by a qualified majority vote. Therefore, the predictability of the process is no greater than before. As long as unanimity is an unrivaled rule, particular interests can disrupt accession dynamics, just as interference of national governments in the candidate countries’ progress assessment dilutes expert findings. Measuring progress must be a technical rather than a political issue. The Commission has dared to propose a reversed qualified majority vote only when triggering reversibility is on the table. This means that it is easier for Member States to obtain suspension of negotiations and funds than to approve any award for exemplary candidate countries.

State capture off the radar

This time, the Commission did not introduce and elaborate on new mechanisms for monitoring the rule of law reforms. The 2018 strategy mentions a number of instruments such as advisory and case-based peer-review missions, and pilot monitoring of key areas. Meanwhile, the EU was rather preoccupied with other issues. The coalition prEUgovor has been pointing for years now, and more recently some political actors in Serbia followed suit, to the need to produce and publish an independent expert report that would explore the state of the rule of law beyond the technical division into negotiating chapters and point to mechanisms of state capture in order to overcome this growing problem.

The advantage of such a report, similar to those previously published for North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (the so-called Priebe reports), lies in its objectivity, transparency, clear language and specific recommendations. These benefits would be even more pronounced as a necessary complement to a process that is becoming more politicized. The Commission promises greater transparency of the process. One of the first steps could be to publish in-depth expert analyses and reports, which governments usually hide under the pretext that the European Commission demands confidentiality.

Roadmaps for the rule of law, the functioning of democratic institutions and public administration reform are envisaged as instruments to guide the negotiations on the Foundations. It is commendable that the Commission will also rely on the findings of other relevant actors in monitoring the reforms, which also reflects its cooperation with international and civil society organizations. It is surprising that this cooperation has not been underlined also when it comes to activating and raising citizens' awareness of European integration. The Commission, however, implied that an active civil society is perceived as an ally, by promising continuous funding even if other funds withdrew from the country due to backsliding.

Saving a seat for the Western Balkans at the EU table?

The Enlargement Commissioner made a good move by presenting the document first to the European Parliament and then to the candidate countries during an official visit to Belgrade and Podgorica. But Member States must uphold the new methodology, otherwise it would just remain a dead letter. No diplomatic invention by the Commission can make up for the lack of political will. Given that the French got a revised enlargement shaped by their views, as well as the Conference on the Future of Europe, where necessary internal EU reforms will be broadly discussed over the next two years, they could mark this victory with a green light for North Macedonia and Albania. This would be a true message of credibility and predictability of rewards for significant reform efforts in these countries, as well as of the EU's ability to find a common position in a strategically important policy. And when discussing the future of Europe, if the Western Balkans is truly part of that vision, it is imperative that it be offered a seat at the table.

Jelena Pejić Nikić, BCSP

The article was originally published in the weekly Novi Magazin, No. 459 from 13.2.2020.