Viktor Orbán and Ursula von der Leyen; Photo: European Union 2019

With only a month left for the nomination of candidates for the next European Commission, two countries have expressed their interest for their candidate to be in charge of the enlargement portfolio. While both are strong supporters of enlargement, the real concern is whether both of them will support not only economic and political integration but also the ideological one. Liberal versus illiberal government, good integration student or the problematic one often criticised for violation of the EU’s core values. Who will give the next enlargement Commissioner – Hungary or Slovenia?

Prime Minister of Slovenia Marjan Šarec nominated Janez Lenarčič, Head of the Mission of Slovenia to European Union, as the new Commissioner. Member of the European Parliament from Slovenia Tanja Fajon believes he would maintain strong support for the Western Balkans’ accession to the EU.

“Slovenia has the experience, it is close to the region, it would definitively be a positive thing for the Western Balkans because our country will be presiding over the European Union in 2021 and it will put the enlargement high on its agenda,” Fajon said for Avaz.

On the other hand, Hungary nominated László Trócsányi, former Minister of Justice and current member of the European Parliament. He also expressed his interest in becoming the next European Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations.

Why enlargement Commissioner from Hungary would be a bad idea?

However, as each country that wants to join the EU should respect democracy, the rule of law and human rights as the core values on which the EU is built, it is difficult to see that a candidate from Hungary, the country that is strongly criticised by Brussels for violation of these principles, could become in charge of this portfolio.

Professor of Southeast European History and Politics at the University of Graz and coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), Florian Bieber, believes that, although there are certainly professional candidates from Hungary who could handle the portfolio of enlargement, the signal of a commissioner for enlargement from Hungary would be fatal for the Western Balkans.

“It would be a constant reminder to the countries most sceptical towards enlargement, like France and the Netherlands of the erosion of rule of law and democracy. In addition, the saying with friends like these…  enlargement is in bad hands,” says Bieber.

He explains that while Hungary might support enlargement, its main goal is to weaken the EU with other illiberal governments. Professor Bieber points out that it will not succeed in bringing them in, but rather strengthen opposition among sceptics, and on top of that, it will strength authoritarian governments and contribute to undermining the reform logic of EU accession.

“A country that is hosting and giving asylum to the former PM of Macedonia accused of serious abuse of office is not well placed to promote rule of law,” says Bieber.

Commissioners – Independent or not really?

Member states have until August 26 to name candidates for Commissioners. Having been appointed as a Member of the European Commission by the European Council, following the vote of consent by the European Parliament in October, each member of the Commission has to take an oath.

They will have to declare that they are going to be completely independent in carrying out their responsibilities, to work in the general interest of the Union and to neither seek nor to take instructions from any Government or any other institution, body, office or entity. But are they truly independent?

Srđan Cvijić, a senior policy analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute and member of BiEPAG, believes that concerns that Commissioners are not be independent may not be founded.

“If you look at the previous experience of Commissioners coming from countries with the problematic rule of law record, they had the tendency to be more loyal to the President and the Commission that they represent than the member state government that proposed them. In other words, I would not underestimate the power of socialisation in Brussels,” says Cvijić.

Although a Hungarian Commissioner might seek to rise above the national position, it will be difficult, thinks Bieber.

“There is on one side the perception which will make him or her viewed as a representative of Orbán and yet the Hungarian Commissioner. This is understandable due to the radical position of Orbán, both in the EU and regarding democracy at home,” says Bieber.

Besides, he believes that the Commissioner will be tainted by his or her association with the regime as “we could not expect an independent candidate to be named.”

“A Commissioner who enjoyed the support of a government that closes independent universities, controls academia and media and established an illiberal, nepotistic system of rule that has continuously moved away from being a democracy cannot be a credible Commissioner. It thus would be desirable that Hungary’s EU Commissioner administers an uncontroversial aspect of EU policy and not enlargement,” emphasises Bieber.

On the other hand, analyst of the European Stability Initiative Adnan Ćerimagić recalls the recent political moves made by Hungarian Foreign Minister, Péter Szijjártó, who against Commission’s own assessment, said in Belgrade that Serbia deserves to become member of the EU as soon as possible, while adding that if it was up to Hungary Serbia would already be a member of the EU.

“Szijjártó also said that some in the EU were artificially slowing down Serbia’s membership path and he warned against attempts to “lecture Serbia.” Such positions are the path towards loss of EU impact in the region and they work against the best interests of the EU and the Western Balkans. Turning them into the European Commission’s policy would be a huge mistake“, points out Ćerimagić.

What should be the priorities of the new Commission?

However, Cvijić believes that the nationality of the future European Commissioner in charge of enlargement is of secondary importance, explaining that it is much more significant is that the new Commission has more efficient tools to make enlargement possible – namely, creating a new Directorate General Europe to deal only with the six Western Balkan countries and the three countries of the Eastern Partnership – Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

Cvijić also believes that it is important that the Commission and the Council follow up on two resolutions of the European Parliament (in 2017 and 2019) and suspend the accession negotiations with Erdogan’s Turkey and that the Council introduces qualified majority voting in all intermediary stages of the accession negotiations.

“If all this happens it would matter little from which country is the new Commissioner,” Cvijić says.

Ćerimagić also thinks that there is an important task at hands of the new Commission when it comes to enlargement, explaining that if in five years the EU wants to have meaningful and positive impact on the Western Balkans those in charge for the policy towards the region will have to be successful in addressing the erosion of trust that exists in the EU relations with the Western Balkans.

To do that, he believes that the Commission’s main priority should be to succeed in fighting all those that have been working very hard to break the international consensus on the Western Balkans.

“Foremost by closing all debates on changing borders along ethnic lines in the region, but also by strongly supporting multi-ethnic states, promoting minority rights, strong democratic institutions and turning Western Balkan borders into European borders,” says Ćerimagić.

He also thinks that the Commission will have to convince sceptical EU member states that the Western Balkan states are capable to develop and implement sustainable and positive reforms. To do that, Ćerimagić notes that the Commission has to start by recognising different stages of the accession process, such that candidate status, accession talks and the number of chapters opened, do not reflect the level of preparedness for EU membership.

“As only two Western Balkan countries engaged in accession talks, Montenegro since 2012 and Serbia since 2014, they should be best prepared for membership, but the Commission’s assessments from May 2019 showed a different picture, one where North Macedonia was ahead of Serbia, in particular in terms of the rule of law, public administration and the economic criteria,“ Ćerimagić points out.

In addition to this, he emphasises that the Commission will have to become better in discovering, measuring and communicating, credibly and clearly, the gap that exists between Western Balkans and the EU, as well as in supporting those willing to work on designing proposals on how to decrease this gap.

Who else is in the picture?

Aside from Hungary and Slovenia, other countries, although they have not yet publicly expressed their interest in enlargement, might become in charge of this policy.

“If we follow the established practice since the “big bang” enlargement (Finland, Czech Republic, Austria) it is now the turn for the “new” EU member states to take the job,” notes Cvijić, adding that the unwritten rule after the 2004-2007 enlargement was that the enlargement portfolio is not given to an EU member state that neighbours candidate and potential candidate countries.

He explains that the logic behind this is to avoid the possible conflict of interests that would come from potential bilateral disputes between these countries, which would give Slovenia some advantage over Hungary.

“I would not exclude some other countries from Central and Eastern Europe (Slovakia or one of the Baltic countries) taking interest in the job. Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania would not stand a big chance from the above-mentioned reason of geographical proximity and I would assume that Poland would be interested in a more significant portfolio,” says Cvijić.

Having all this in mind, the Western Balkans will certainly need a Commissioner that is willing to work hard to promote the enlargement in the EU that is preoccupied with reforming itself rather than enlarging, while at the same time insisting on the respect of core values and principles in the region. This time, the Western Balkans will not need a friend as much as they will need a strong hand and motivation to guide them towards the membership.