BRUSSELS – Western Balkans should be integrated into the European Union sector by sector, which would blur the distinction between membership and non-membership and allow for the ultimate decision on full membership to lose much of its drama on the EU side, argue Milica Delević and Tena Prelec in an article for the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) members Delević and Prelec write that, while the non-decision of the European Council on the issues of North Macedonia and Albania is a huge setback, the reality is that the enlargement process has not been functioning for a long time.
In their opinion, the better way to integrate the countries of the region is to integrate the Western Balkans sector by sector.
“Progress has already taken place in the area of connectivity in the form of the energy and transport communities, and with the opening up of community programmes to Western Balkans countries. With some effort and imagination, the concept can be extended to many other areas”, write Delević, director of the Office for European Integration of the Serbian Government (2008-2012) and an ECFR council member and Prelec, research fellow at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford.
According to them, the process should also be followed by an increase in funding, which would be provided by an access to structural funds to candidate countries ahead of accession.
“If the EU wants to be seen to be taking the enlargement perspective seriously, it should be able to reward progress in a more substantial way. Currently, member states of comparable size and level of economic development receive up to eight times as much financial assistance as candidate countries. This increases divergence, rather than allowing successful candidates to catch up”, the article emphasises.
The authors also argue that enlargement methodology in this way would also help address democratic backsliding and rule of law problems in Western Balkans countries, because it would increase the cost of non-compliance and incorporate the areas areas like public procurement, state aid, and competition into such as sectoral integration that would help tackle practices of state capture.
“The sectoral approach is more likely to gain traction in the region simply because it offers concrete benefits at an earlier stage. It would, furthermore, encourage real partnership and joint ownership of the common European project. But, whichever approach the EU ultimately chooses, one thing is clear: it should not seek to bring about unilateral enlargement reform on the basis of its own internal concerns and constraints”, Delević and Prelec conclude.