France-led opposition this October to following the recommendation of the European Commission to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia has created confusion, anger and uncertainty in the Western Balkans. Frictions about the enlargement policy are arguably as old as the European Union itself. Scholars and practitioners alike have raised concerns over the capacity of the EU to be in a constant mode of widening without substantial reforms and the consequences that hasty memberships have brought for the EU (see for example here). Part of the problem seems to be that geopolitical motivations to have some states become members trumped the more technical process that promoted membership as a merit-based process and depended upon fulfillment of certain EU conditions.
Another problem is the methodology of the accession process itself, which has not yielded the transformation and the results that many in the EU have expected from the accession process in the Western Balkans, particularly in the rule of law area. Existing approaches are not adequate for the particularities of the political context of the Western Balkans and the deep entanglement of politics with crime and business. Additionally, the process has lacked sufficient transparency and accountability from all sides. For years now, these problems have been raised by scholars and civil society leaders from the region, and even coined a term ‘Stabilitocracy’ to refer to the situation in the region and the shortcomings of EU approaches. So, President Macron is preaching to the choir, having in mind civil society mostly, when he demands changes in the methodology of the accession process.
European Stability Initiative found that the accession process has not been transformative or based on merit and that “[t]here was a lot of politicking around opening each chapter, though few understood what it actually meant.” What needs to change is a methodology that provides clarity and a concrete tailor-made approach of reforms targeting key sectors, such as rule of law. Additionally, this change needs to lead to a streamlining of EU’s approaches, and create a safe distance between the European Union and the governments in the region, because the practices of embedment of the Commission in reform process have often led to weakened accountability for local institutions. Part of the challenge of reforming the methodology would be devising an instrument that addresses the shortcomings concerning domestic obstruction and drive for reforms.
One strong candidate to provide a platform to do this and rethink EU’s methodology of supporting reforms in the region includes the Sector Reform Contracts. Already the Commission has signed such contracts in the area of public administration with most countries in the Western Balkans. The SRC are very clear and there is little room for interpretation. Government and the EU agree on a set of very concrete and tangible indicators, identified from existing national strategies, and each indicator contains a concrete methodology how to measure its fulfillment. Each indicator is assigned a particular financial value that if fulfilled is disbursed directly to the national budget, instead of that money being managed through consultancy contracts. This gives strong incentives to the government to deliver, as well as provides a clear system for civil society to monitor and hold the government accountable for shortcomings. However, this instrument lacks the necessary political weight to lead to more ambitious change. The EU should elevating SRC into high-level political dialogue and transforming this instrument into a standard approach of dealing with reforms in the region.
However, it is not only about changing the way how accession process works. Besides being influenced by power play (read more here), Macron’s “Non” to EU enlargement is the most recent snub of the Commission by member States. France and Netherlands, among others, have rejected repeated recommendations from the European Parliament and the Commission to liberalize Schengen visas for Kosovars. Dutch officials have openly told a Kosovo delegation that they do not trust the Commission assessment over the fulfillment of the conditions from the roadmap to visa liberalization. Undoubtedly this creates serious harm to the EU’s ability to effectively deal with the governments of the region. It is counterproductive and a dose of hypocrisy, to request deeper integration and reform of the EU, but then to snub EU institutions and diminish their agency. It seems that national interests and efforts to appease the far-right populism are increasingly influencing member State positions in the decision-making process within the EU.
The full-on display of disunity and inability of the EU to reach a compromise is deeply troubling beyond the future of the enlargement policy.
The EU now has a problem with credibility and this urgently needs to be addressed. The emerging unpredictability of the EU risks harming peacebuilding efforts, where the European integration process and EU leadership has been vital for getting countries in the region to resolve long-standing disputes between them. The Prespa Agreement of 2018 between Greece and North Macedonia and the Brussels Agreement of 2013, the first ever between Kosovo and Serbia, would have been impossible in a context where the EU would be seen as an unpredictable actor who is unable to deliver on its commitments.
The European Commission despite a very difficult context, made an important effort last year to develop a credible process of engagement with the Western Balkans in proposing a new strategy, which differs significantly from past documents in that it, does not shy away from calling out countries in the region for their shortcomings. Actions of some individual Member States to weaken the enlargement policy while they might be genuine in their criticism of approach and methodology can create unintended consequences for a region marred in nationalism and ripe for foreign influence of malign actors. Halting enlargement for the Western Balkans undermines decades of work and achievement in the region, and it invites Russia and China, and other actors to present their alternatives, which they are already doing. Additionally it silences demand for reform and liberal voices in the region and keeps corrupted leaders in power. This presents a potentially far more serious challenge for the EU in the future. Rushing to call this warning a geopolitical threat, as some have done with others raising similar points, is a poor judgement. EU’s Global Strategy rightly prioritizes support for democratic resilience, and the region is not there yet.
The message from the Western Balkans is clear, strict but fair and predictable accession process. Reforming methodology is welcomed but it does not need to come at the expense of diminishing the vision of the enlargement policy vis-à-vis the Western Balkans. It has been the only vision the region has come to accept since the bloody wars of the 1990s. The EU and Member States will be served better by maintaining a credible engagement with the region.
This article is published in the framework of the project “Building Bridges: Europeanization through the enhancement of cooperation between KCSS and Think Tanks in the EU” implemented by KCSS and supported by the Open Society Initiative for Europe (OSIFE).