France’s assessment that EU enlargement has not been functioning for a while is not wrong. However, its proposal outlined in the leaked non-paper would exacerbate rather than resolve enlargement’s functional problems. This is because Paris evades to deal with the two elephants in the room.

The first is the inconsistency and obscurity of the accession process. EU aspirant members should comply with two set of criteria. One the one hand, we have the technical requirements linked to the full adoption of the acquis communautaire. Compliance with these terms is an arduous but measurable process that concerns the transfer of a vast amount of EU norms into the legal/bureaucratic order of candidate members. One the other, there are the political requirements, whose content is open-ended and not necessarily confined to the framework of the Copenhagen criteria.

EU members have routinely exploited accession negotiations to settle favorably open issues with candidate members. Technical and political requirements are not communicated to EU aspirant members at different instances, nor are they treated differently in terms of EU decision-making. Member-states can raise issues at any stage of the enlargement process, whereas EU institutions take every single decision concerning the advancement of a country’s path to membership with exactly the same procedures (presupposing the unanimous approval of all member states). As a result, accession negotiations is not a predictable, let alone a merit-based process. Whether an EU aspirant would advance towards membership increasingly depends on the context of European decision-making as well.

The French proposal correctly points out to the need of increasing the verifiability of progress with the introduction of means from other policies such as the ‘justice scoreboard’ and the ‘European semester’. However, it does not tell anything about the more than seventy member-state opportunities to veto the process and introduce unrelated political requirements. As a result, inconsistency and obscurity is here to stay.

The second elephant is the length of the process. No policy circle lasting 20-25 years is optimal. We talk a lot about enlargement fatigue. What about accession fatigue? How can we reasonably expect Western Balkan leaderships to carry out painful concessions on national matters when the reward is not expected to arrive before some years according to the most optimistic scenario? What is the value of European promises whose realization is nowhere visible in the horizon?

The French idea of segmenting the accession negotiations process into seven steps promises to create much-needed interim benchmarks and rewards. However, to the extent that candidates should graduate from one step to move to another, accession negotiations would be slowed down rather than accelerated. This is because the possibility of negotiations advancing simultaneously on chapters located at different steps would be eliminated from the picture.

Seven stages of EU accession: This is how France would reform the process

The rescue of EU enlargement policy requires a different approach that deals directly with the two elephants in the room. Technical and political requirements should be clearly separated during the accession process. The transfer of EU rules and norms is a very demanding and lengthy process whose beginning should not be linked to stringent conditions. If the EU is a normative power, what is the purpose of setting itself obstacles to the spread of its norms? Ideally, EU norm diffusion should radiate well beyond the framework of enlargement policy and the transfer of EU norms should be available on demand to any country around the world that is willing to internalize them.

In fact, if we relabel EU accession chapters to “EU norms” chapters, their potential geographical reach would be immediately increased and EU members would not be scared of opening this type of negotiations with third countries. In that case, if the technical requirements are disassociated from the political requirements in the process, EU members would not need to maintain a strong hold on their veto power at the stage of opening chapter negotiations. Decisions on such institutional steps could be taken by qualified majority and, thus, the corresponding negotiations might be transformed into a fairer and more predictable technocratic process. Once the process of norm transfer is successfully completed, the political requirements of accession negotiations would appear in sight. EU members could at that moment decide unanimously whether they assess that chapter negotiations have been successfully concluded and whether they concede to the full accession of any EU-norm-compatible aspirant member-state. At this stage, the high level of preparedness of candidate countries would contribute to the diminution of reservations in EU members. From that point forward, the EU accession process would only take a few years and any intractable political question would have greater chances of getting resolved efficiently as concessions would be observably linked to the imminent reward of EU membership. In such a scenario, the EU conflict resolution power would arguably be at its best.

Western Balkans Summit in Berlin; Photo: Tanjug / Marina Maksimović

Interestingly, such a radical change of policy-making does not require a revision of the EU Treaty. In sharp contrast to the complexity and the sophistication of the entire process, the operation of the enlargement process is thinly described in the Treaty of the European Union. Moreover, such a policy change would take into consideration the sensitivities of EU members. Maintaining more than 35 vetoes (on closing EU norm chapters) does not render member-state concerns irrelevant. Still, these vetoes could be raised at a time in which EU aspirant members have been substantially transformed and in which their commitment to EU accession has been unambiguously demonstrated.

In addition, France’s demand to focus presently on the deepening of EU integration would be sufficiently addressed. While the Western Balkan countries would be given the opportunity to vigorously move on with the adoption of the entire corpus of EU rules and norms, their EU accession would leave from the top of the European political agenda. This is not necessarily negative to the extent that the debate in Europe on enlargement is currently dominated by negative stereotypes that empower opposition to its advancement. More importantly, the policy change proposed here would not be demoralizing for any of the six Western Balkan countries, which are actually at different stages of the accession process. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, the two laggards, would be given the opportunity to commence negotiations for the transfer of the acquis without any further delay. This is something beyond their most optimistic current expectations. Albania and North Macedonia would also commence immediately negotiations that would be predictable and fair and would not be jeopardized by a more or less sudden change of mood in any EU member-state. This is a great certitude, missing at the present from the process.

Crucially, while the proposed revision focuses on process, it does not affect policy orientation. Both North Macedonia and Albania have been unanimously proclaimed candidate members and this is not put here into question. The same goes for Serbia and Montenegro, which would be instantly given the chance to open all remaining chapters. In Serbia’s case, the resolution of the Kosovo question would be dealt later on, at a time in which its EU membership would be in sight. Arguably, at that stage, the EU negotiation power would be at its maximum, while a compromise would be easier to sell domestically in Serbia.

To conclude, the EU enlargement policy desperately needs a revision. Still, if the policy stalemate is meant to end, changes should concentrate on the departure of the two elephants from the room.