The article was originally published on the Serbian language version of our portal.
Following the French veto and the absence of a decision by the European Council to open membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania in October, serious controversy has emerged over the reform of EU enlargement. The French proposal for reform was introduced first, provoking a heated controversy, after which the other nine Member States came up with their non-paper on this issue. New proposals, both from the Member States and from other stakeholders are expected in the coming months.
The two officially announced enlargement reform proposals, one by the French and other by nine Member States, seek to advance the negotiation process by establishing more concrete rewards and penalties, as well as by a partial integration of the Western Balkan countries into the various institutions and policies of the EU.
Both proposals foresee the replacement of the negotiating chapters with broader areas and a greater focus on the rule of law issues. But while the French proposal includes seven phases of integration that would follow one after the other, the proposal of nine countries prescribes negotiations in eight different areas to be conducted simultaneously.
However, it is unclear how these reforms could improve the enlargement process compared to the existing framework, considering the identified problems. It also raises the question of what exactly the consequences of a potential enlargement reform would be for Serbia and Montenegro, as they are already deep in the process of membership negotiations.
What is wrong with the existing framework?
There is an agreement among analysts that the enlargement process is currently in a serious trouble, which would have been the case even without the French veto in October 2019. The two countries considered to be the leaders in this process, Serbia and Montenegro, are failing to make greater strides in the closing of the chapter even after six or eight years since the beginning of the negotiations, especially in the key area of the rule of law.
However, the existing negotiating frameworks for Serbia and Montenegro are already putting Chapters 23 and 24 at the center of the negotiation process and the lack of progress in them causes it to de facto slow down or stop. What, then, is the problem with existing framework and why might it prove inadequate?
Vice President of the European Movement in Serbia Vladimir Međak believes that the biggest problem with the existing framework is that it does not provide for clearly defined deadlines for activities such as handing over a negotiating position, fulfilling opening and closing benchmarks, or a general plan for the conclusion of the negotiations.
„After receiving a request to submit a negotiating position, the candidate country does not have any deadline within which to submit it. The same goes for meeting the benchmarks for opening and closing a chapter. That is why the government of the candidate country has no pressure from the EU to speed up the reform process,“ Međak told EWB.
However, he believes that the lack of pressure from the EU to accelerate reforms shows that the EU does not have too much will to speed up the process, recalling that the 2004 enlargement was conducted with a strong pressure from both the EU and candidate countries.
„Putting deadlines on the process is the only way to speed up the reforms or to get a clear picture of the parts of the process that have stalled, in the EU or in the candidate country. And then the question arises of responsibility for the lack of the results. The timing of the individual phases as well as the whole process is the only way to make accession a joint undertaking of the EU and the candidate country, in which the EU would pull candidates, while the candidates would push the EU to speed things up, which requires political will on both sides. We now have a mimicry of processes and reforms,“ Međak said.
In his view, the rule of law already has the most important position in the process, and nothing more needs to be changed about the methodology.
„What is written should be implemented and, above all, the problems and the people responsible for them should be identified. The „captured state“, stressed in the Junker Commission paper of February 2018, does not originate overnight in and of itself. There are always some people behind it, some events and some decisions. This needs to be identified and clearly and loudly heard so that the citizens of the Western Balkan countries can hear,“ Mađak said.
When it comes to reversibility, that is, the possibility of reversing the negotiation process foreseen by the French proposal, Međak believes that it already exists today, but is not used, making the French request a „knock on the open door“.
„The negotiating framework, as we have it, provides for the possibility of suspending negotiations due to poor progress in Chapters 23 and 24. IPA funds may also be suspended. With the six-month European Commission Report on the situation in Chapter 23 and 24 of 13 November this year, where the term „serious delay“ is mentioned 21 times in document for various aspects of the commitments made by Serbia, the delay in negotiations is imminent and the opening of two chapters in during 2019, is the maximum speed. Even this minimum, according to current rules, can stop if it continues in this direction,“ said Međak.
Srđan Civijić, Senior Policy Analyst at the Open Society Institute for European Policy in Brussels and a member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), believes that the problem with the current framework is that it is at the same time an overly bureaucratic and overly politicized process.
“The fact that the opening of each new chapter, as well as the closing of the chapter, requires the unanimity of the Member States, makes it possible for individual EU countries to veto further progress despite the fact that the other 27 countries agree, which is the politicization of the process par excellence,” Cvijić told EWB.
Cvijić recalls that this was the case with Greece, which, because of a name dispute with then Republic of Macedonia, virtually made it impossible for this country to be a part of the EU, maybe already together with Croatia.
Jovana Spremo, EU Policy Advisor at YUCOM and Coordinator of the Serbian National Convention Working Group for Chapter 23, tells EWB that the rule of law under Chapter 23 and 24 is and must be prioritized because of its importance for all other areas.
“The current framework states that the backlog in these chapters is affecting the overall progress of the negotiations, but the format for discussing whether progress has actually been made, through reporting to the Commission and the Council’s decision, shows its shortcomings. The corrective measures, such as the revision of the Action Plan, do not at least provide a timely response to the stalemate in the reforms, and they have even been shown to slow it down even further,” our interlocutor said.
From her point of view, it is important to improve the measurement of progress and to set deadlines.
“It is necessary to better structure and prioritize work on specific measures, with strict deadlines, the disrespect of which would have certain consequences for the country’s progress in the process, as well as improve the system of measuring progress itself,” she said.
Asked if the problem lies in an inadequate negotiating framework or the absence of political will to reform, Spremo says that the latter is the most important.
“The negotiation process is flawed, but is possible to work and implement the reforms in its current form. It is more than clear that, except declaratively, Serbia’s political will to really advance the rule of law is absent, and the activities on the list are approached only technically,” she said.
Will the existing enlargement reform proposals improve the process?
Vice President of the European Movement in Serbia Vladimir Međak believes that the French proposal has certain good elements, “such as opening the EU to candidate countries gradually and before membership”, but also certain disadvantages, such as the proposal to “first open and close Chapters 23 and 24, so that the other things are only then negotiated”.
“This would completely miss the objective of the proposal because, in the absence of a realistic membership perspective, the rule of law in the Western Balkans would be further delayed for several decades. Local political elites, who are not favouring the rule of law, would be given the perfect alibi for their behaviour and a green light to move on. This is fundamentally at odds with France’s view that enlargement should be and that strengthening the rule of law is a key segment,” Međak believes.
According to Međak, this is why the second non-paper of the nine Member States was drafted – the aim was to create a balance, with the latter paper picking some positive proposals from the French paper.
„The bottom line is that, with these two papers, and with its experience in conducting accession negotiations, the European Commission comes up with a proposal for a new methodology in January 2020. It should be borne in mind that only the Commission has, at its core and in the list of tasks it performs, the task of protecting the interests of the EU as a whole and not the individual national interests of the Member States. These papers will be the starting points for the proposal of the European Commission, and the proposal of the European Commission will be the starting point for discussion between the Member States,” believes Međak.
However, according to him, it should be borne in mind that all these papers are merely a reflection of the political will behind them.
“If there is no political will to enlarge, the papers will not have much effect on reality. For now, the impression is that there is a will, but that the way process was managed so far is over. We will see what its next reincarnation will look like and how much of the political will is behind it,” says Vladimir Međak.
In his opinion, what lacks in both papers, as well as the overall enlargement process so far, are inadequate funds allocated by the EU to the Western Balkan countries.
“Development funds must be significantly increased for the Balkans to gain access to economic development and raise the standard of living of the citizens. Enhanced political and economic developmental presence of the EU is the only way to make the process successful,” Međak concludes.
According to Srđan Cvijić, both proposals have their good and bad sides.
„While the French proposal was obviously written in a rush and offers candidate countries the privileges they already have (Erasmus + for example), it envisages the so-called frontloading, or opening of funds reserved for the Member States to candidate countries. This possibility is not mentioned directly in non-paper of the nine Member States. On the other hand, the French proposal introduces a potentially even more bureaucratic system with several stages of accession,“ says our interlocutor.
Cvijić reminds that the introduction of the proposed „French“ system, with a unanimous vote system, would potentially delay the accession negotiations with the Western Balkans countries indefinitely.
„Introducing a qualified majority system in the accession negotiation process would make the system more efficient in both directions,“ Cvijić concludes.
Would the enlargement reform also apply to Serbia and Montenegro?
The question to which there is still no clear answer is whether the reform of the enlargement process would also apply to Serbia and Montenegro, two countries that have already stepped deeply into the negotiation process. While Serbia has opened 18 of 35 chapters so far, Montenegro has opened 32 of 33. Whether and how the changes to the framework would affect these current processes will also have to be included in any further discussion.
The Serbian Minister for European Integration Jadranka Joksimović recently said that she would not mind the reform if EU proposals would lead to improving the quality of the enlargement process, but that “it would be really strange and not completely fair to change the rules during the negotiations”, adding that this “would result in additional uncertainty” in the negotiation process.
Vladimir Međak reminds that the French non-paper refers to negotiations that are yet to be opened, but he does not see a way for negotiations with four candidates to be conducted by different methodologies, using a 2+2 model.
“Therefore, I think that everything that shall be adopted regarding the changes in methodology for North Macedonia and Albania shall also be applied on Serbia and Montenegro. We can start the talks about possible improvements of the process after we see what the proposal is in January”, says Međak.
He points out that political will is a basic precondition for progress and that efforts in atmosphere where there is lack of political will are a waste of time.
“Today, Serbia is three years late in amending the Constitution to ensure the independence of the judiciary. After two years of leading the process of amending the Constitution, the government announced that it was not responsible for the job at all. The government has not negotiated or submitted the negotiating position in several chapters even after three years of receiving the EU invitation to do so. The government has also been drafting some action plans, which are the benchmarks for opening certain chapters, for three years”, points out our interlocutor.
Srđan Cvijić believes that it is difficult to say whether the reform of the negotiation process will apply to Serbia and Montenegro, noting that the issue also applies to Turkey, which is also negotiating according to the existing methodology.
“Authorities in Serbia and Montenegro are ruling out the possibility of changing the existing methodology in their cases. However, it is neither Đukanovic nor Vučić, but EU Member States that are deciding about this, and it is expected that the revised methodology will apply to Belgrade and Podgorica as well”, says Cvijić.
Certainly, these issues will be further discussed during the first months of 2020 and the success of the enlargement process is likely to depend heavily on the proposed reforms. There is an impression that the reform could advance and accelerate the integration of the Western Balkans, but also make it more uncertain. It will all depend on the EU Member States.
This article has been published in the context of the project “Support for independent reporting on European integrations of Serbia with a special emphasis on Chapters 23 and 24”, which is being implemented in cooperation with EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy and with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic. The views expressed in this article do not represent those of the EUROPEUM Institute or those of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic.