European Western Balkans

BiEPAG non-paper busts ten myths about EU enlargement

Ministerial Meeting; Western Balkans Summit in Poznań; Photo: Flickr / Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland / Tymon Markowski / MSZ

GRAZ – The majority of EU citizens are against enlargement, French veto was caused by the lack of progress, candidate countries cannot be decoupled – these are some of the ten myths that the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) members aim to bust in their newest non-paper on EU enlargement.

The first myth that the non-paper tackles is that the veto on opening of accession negotiations for North Macedonia and Albania is the consequence of the lack of the progress of these countries. In fact, French President’s objections are the result of strong reservations with regard to previous enlargements and a long-standing enlargement scepticism among the French elite and concerns about its declining role in the EU, the non-paper explains.

However, BiEPAG researchers also wrote that the enlargement process has been in crisis for years, being essentially on autopilot with limited commitment from the member states. In that sense, although the French „non“ was not the result of the flaws of the accession process as such, it is true that the enlargement process is in crisis.

„Western Balkans countries have been pretending to carry out reforms, and the EU and its members have been pretending to be satisfied with the limited progress in the region,” they wrote, adding that, despite years of negotiations with Montenegro and Serbia, the results have been minimal.

Candidates should not be made to enter the EU as a couple

That enlargement is a waltz, in which two countries have to proceed to the next stage of the process together, is yet another myth the non-paper tackles. Authors explained that earlier enlargements have been either competition between those seeking to join, known as the “reggata-principle”, or a joint membership in a big bang.

The non-paper states that there is no compelling logic of why countries should be coupled with each other.

“In the past, the process was either a big bang, with many negotiating at the same time, and an objective of allowing as many as possible to join a once, or it was a trickle, with each country progressing according to its individual merits,” they wrote adding that there is no good reason why North Macedonia should move slower because of Albania.

The non-paper also focused on the ongoing topic of enlargement process reform. While the EU enlargement methodology cannot make up for the lack of political will, which would always represent a problem, the authors stressed that it can nevertheless increase the costs caused by non-compliance of Western Balkans political leaders and by the EU member states’ arbitrary blocking.

“At the moment, there is very little incentive for the governments of the Western Balkans to comply with EU demands (especially with those tough, rule of law related issues),” they emphasised, adding that linking meaningful progress with tangible benefits and, conversely, pausing or redirecting such benefits in case of backsliding could provide a much needed stimulus for deep-seated reform.

They also added that it is not true that the reform of EU and of enlargement are mutually exclusive processes.

“The 2004 enlargement process took place in parallel with the Amsterdam Treaty (signed in 1997, entered into force in 1999) and the Nice Treaty (signed in 2001, entered into force in 2003). The European Constitutional Treaty was drafted before the big bang and signed just a few months after ten countries had joined. It failed not due to enlargement, but because of opposition in the countries that today are the most critical towards enlargement, such as France and the Netherlands”, the non-paper emphasises.

More EU citizens are in favour than against enlargement

According to non-paper, the EU accession process is often perceived as being too technocratic and bureaucracy-driven. The authors point out that this is wrong – although EU law is organized into 35 chapters, it is only a methodological tool for defining specific areas. From their point of view, it would be wrong to expose the enlargement process to even greater political influence, especially regarding the ability of individual member states to halt the enlargement process.

One of the myths that was also discussed is that the EU citizens are against enlargement or critical of the EU. The authors argued that support for the EU and its institutions is at a record high, as is the number of citizens identifying as Europeans, and more EU citizens are in favor of enlargement (46% as opposed to 42% who are against).

“The fact that some of the greatest enlargement supporters, such as Austria and Germany, and its greatest critics, such as France and the Netherlands, have similarly skeptical populations, suggests that the elites’ strategic commitment to enlargement is less a result of popular opinion, but rather that the skepticism among voters is being used as justification,” the non-paper points out.

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