Over the past couple of days, the discourse on the Western Balkans’ EU accession has been dominated by discussion of the (in)famous French non-paper, finally explaining the thinking behind the changes in the enlargement methodology announced earlier by President Macron. Ever since France blocked the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania at October’s European Council meeting, criticising and even bashing French proposals for reforming EU enlargement policy has been a popular sport within the expert and think-tank community in the EU and the region at large. Enraged by this act and bolstered by a subsequent wave of misinformation about what the French really want (with claims, for example, that France would propose a sort of a privileged partnership instead of actual membership), the policy community (or at least the Twitter policy community) has greeted the non-paper with loads of negativity.

But let’s not dismiss its ideas just because we don’t like the way they’ve been delivered. To understand the essence of the proposal, we should work to separate the scent of “French arrogance” surrounding the process from the actual analysis of the non-paper. After gaining a bit of context from discussions with various French officials over the past weeks, I would dare argue that these proposals – even if quite general in this first draft – present an opportunity for the Western Balkan region to benefit from a substantively improved accession process. Moreover, the fact that this initial proposal reflects a number of papers and recommendations made in the previous years by think tanks and experts from the region (as well as those highly experienced with the region’s EU accession) gives hope that behind these proposals is indeed a genuine wish to improve the process. As the French officials have repeated several times in the past few weeks, the idea is to change the process from a “box-ticking” exercise, plagued by reform window-dressing, into a truly transformative process, supporting socio-economic convergence and providing tangible benefits for the region’s citizens.

Firstly, one needs to acknowledge the fact that the non-paper clearly reiterates “full and complete accession” as the final objective of the process. Therefore, there should be no more speculation that the Western Balkans would be offered a substitute for membership or that EU enlargement to the region is dead.

Next, the non-paper presents a more gradual pathway towards membership. The rationale behind this principle is twofold. First, by allowing candidates to accede to EU policies in a step-by-step manner (possibly through several policy blocks, for which a potential structure is provided in an annex), the moment of actual accession would be rendered less intimidating – particularly for member states. In a way, member states would gradually get accustomed to the participation of new countries in EU affairs. Second, gradual accession would allow candidate countries to “practice membership” in a manner of speaking. As Western Balkan countries’ officials would be allowed to take part in Council deliberations (without voting rights), they would progressively “socialise” and learn how to function within the complex EU policymaking system.

I made a similar, though more ambitious, proposal over a year ago in my discussion paper “Away with the Enlargement Bogeyman,” published by CEP Belgrade. Therefore, at this point, I need to point out a few reservations I have after reading the French non-paper. My proposal was based on the idea that candidate countries would be allowed to cross a key milestone towards membership earlier in the accession process by signing tailored accession treaties stipulating gradual access to EU policy areas based on a clear roadmap and upon meeting specific conditions for each “layer” of membership. The French proposal, however, lacks clarity on the legal context of the proposed “gradual accession.” The devil will, clearly, lie in the details. If candidate countries are still to remain just that, up to the final point of meeting all the prescribed (and stringent) criteria (the second main principle in the non-paper), I fear that instead of practicing membership, the region will just be given a toy to keep itself busy for years or even decades to come. Without signing accession treaties (or at least specific sectorial treaties), the European Court of Justice will not have jurisdiction over any of the matters covered by the proposed policy blocks, leaving to question whether anyone will take such participation seriously. What is needed for the further elaboration of this basic principle of the French proposal is a serious legal analysis, laying out options and ways forward, along with impact assessments for all of the options.

The second grand principle the French non-paper proposes is about “stringent conditions.” Rather than introducing a new concept, I read this principle to mainly reiterate the need for basing advancement on clear and objective indicators of progress. Assessing this progress also needs to be objective and credible (i.e. trusted by member states), which we can read as a warning for the European Commission, the main author of the countries’ monitoring reports, considering that the non-paper also underlines that member states should review its evaluations. There are two notable issues in this segment of the proposal. Firstly, while an increased reliance on various international methodologies is essentially positive, this suggestion leaves out the region’s civil society, which has been heavily involved in monitoring domestic reforms and whose impact on the European Commission’s monitoring reports has grown over the years, making them more objective and outspoken in describing reform deficiencies. Secondly, the non-paper mentions “tangible economic and social convergence” as an objective that needs to be met before final accession. Whether this is a proposal to introduce a fully new membership criterion or not remains to be seen, but we need to be very careful here. To my knowledge, Central and Eastern European countries have achieved most of their convergence with the rest of the club post-accession, as EU membership has boosted their economic performance. Asking Western Balkan candidates to converge first and only then potentially accede might just mean creating an unsurmountable obstacle – one that defies the very logic of the benefits of accession.

I should say here that the true meaning of the second principle will also depend on the final design of the third key principle. Discussing “tangible benefits,” the non-paper offers the possibility of making structural funds available to candidate countries. Experts (such as Dusan Reljic of SWP and, more recently, Pierre Mirel, Honorary Director General at European Commission) have written and spoken about the benefits of such support to the countries of the Western Balkans for a couple of years now, especially in terms of closing the development gap with the EU. When reflected in the context of the possible convergence criterion discussed above, this tangible benefit would need to be feature more strongly in proposals for reforming the enlargement methodology. Rather than mentioning them as a mere possibility, access to structural funds should be intrinsically linked to the “stringent conditions” principle. Several caveats regarding rules of access and anti-corruption mechanisms to avoid possible misuse of these funds would need to be attached to this part of the proposal. Some of these caveats are recognised in the non-paper, whereas others have been elaborated by the experts referenced above.

The fourth principle concerns the “reversibility” of the accession process. Based on my discussions in Paris, I believe that French officials don’t necessarily see this principle as introducing something completely new to the process, but rather strengthening and enforcing the instruments that have already been available. We do need the process to be more reactive to the situation on the ground, with clearer consequences when authorities in the region fail to uphold even the most basic democratic and rule-of-law standards. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with this part of the proposal. In fact, if applied properly towards Turkey, it could prove very useful for the Western Balkan region at large, considering that much of the opposition to enlargement in EU member states is linked to the Turkish accession process.

The non-paper also proposes an improved political governance of the process, including annual European Council meetings with Western Balkan heads of states or governments. Such meetings would be very helpful in keeping enlargement high on the EU’s political agenda, while at the same time further supporting the region’s convergence with the mainstream EU policy priorities (for example, environment and climate change, and migration policy, among others). What needs to be kept in mind is the adverse “glorification” effect of high-level interactions between EU and WB political leaderships. As argued convincingly by Wunsch and Richter in their paper “Money, Power, Glory” earlier this year, such interactions have been construed by Western Balkan governments as endorsements of their domestic actions. Therefore, increased interaction at the political level should also be accompanied by a clearer decoupling of support for our countries’ EU accession processes from support for local leaders and their often-questionable governing practices. In fact, what is needed in the accession process going forward is increased clarity about who is responsible for reduced progress or backsliding, in line with the reversibility principle.

As I said above, the devil will be in the details. Whereas the non-paper offers the bones of a reformed enlargement methodology, the Commission will need to develop it in totality, including the policy packages (referred to as stages of the process). Along with working out legal intricacies, the final proposal should take special care to make the process more motivating for Western Balkan political leaderships, through both the carrots and the sticks introduced on the way. I would even go so far as to propose setting accession target years based on merit for each of the countries, re-assessed with every monitoring report, with conclusions provided on whether the country has moved forward or away from meeting its targets. If progress is not made, the target year would be duly changed.

And finally, a decisive factor in either backing or blocking the French proposal may be support (or lack thereof) for it from the Western Balkan region itself. Rather than imposing a new methodology on the region from the top down, this is a much-needed opportunity to work together with those actors from the region most concerned with the true transformation of our countries into credible and capable future member states. By harnessing this potential and building trust in the region’s societies, France as well as other member states worried about the basic values of the Union can finally put those members on the spot who only pay lip service to supporting enlargement.