European Western Balkans

Flatter, faster, fairer: How to revive the political will and make enlargement a success

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

The text was originally published on BiEPAG blog.

The inability of the European Council meeting held in October 2019 to agree on the opening of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania had one important, if unintended, consequence: it turned enlargement into a major European political debate. It was a catalyst that helped make clear that it is ultimately full EU membership, and not a special or privileged partnership, that the EU is offering to the Western Balkans (WB). It also rallied supporters of enlargement to loudly voice their stances, while reminding the public of the cost of non-enlargement.

This cost includes the WB publics’ profound disillusionment with the European project; the ensuing loss of the EU’s leverage to push for reforms in the region; the connected emigration epidemic (that has been shown to be correlated with corruption and the perceived lack of an even playing field); the increasing populism and nationalism, as well as the rise in influence of non-Western actors in the region; and therefore, ultimately, a heightened risk of the dreaded ‘instability’ to make a comeback to the Balkans.

Calls are growing for the next Council to finally produce a green light for the start of accession talks. But in order for this to happen, France (the “enlargement-sceptic-in-chief” among EU member states) has demanded that a new methodology for EU enlargement should be devised. Other EU member states have followed suit. While France was rather lonely in its opposition to starting accession talks with either North Macedonia or Albania, the need for reforming EU enlargement methodology is much more widely felt: the system, which has become a technocratic exercise without much high-level political involvement, is clearly struggling to stimulate deep-seated reform among candidate countries.

Since the developments of autumn 2019, several papers and reports discussing how to improve EU enlargement methodology were published by experts, think tankers and even France set out their ideas in a non-paper published in November 2019. Most of the contributions are calling for a more merit-based system: one that is able to offer more tangible benefits earlier in the process, as well as to punish backsliding.

This leaves the European Commission (EC) with an important task: to revise the approach so as to strike the balance between more stringent conditions and the ability to reverse gear if there is backsliding, which would convince member states the process is strict and merit based, and, on the other hand, offer concrete benefits and gradual integration to aspiring countries, which currently do not feel membership is sufficiently close to make them change their behaviour. In short, it needs to revive EU conditionality – which is at the heart of enlargement.

It needs to be clear that improving EU enlargement methodology is not a silver bullet. It is ultimately in the hands of the EU member states and of the WB leaderships to actually move the process forward. But the EC can, and should try to, stimulate a situation in which political will at the top is revived, by increasing the cost of non-compliance and making the rewards for compliance meaningful in a quicker timeframe. Such a process would be better able to incentivise reforms in the WB countries, while offering no excuses for the EU member states that would decide to block the progression of WB countries arbitrarily, and not on merit-based grounds.

Our proposal: a flatter approach, not a new kind of pyramid

What to avoid?

Some proposals are calling for a complete overhaul of the methodology and starting the process anew, reordering the talks in two or seven stages. But a total overhaul of EU enlargement is simply not on the cards: it would require a consensus among member states as well as WB countries, two of which are already in the midst of negotiations. Candidate countries could also easily – and perhaps rightly – see it as offering an alternative to full membership. Crucially, furthermore, we argue that there is a need for a process that will be more horizontal and that, as such, would keep EU enlargement in motion by providing a shorter, more flexible paths for candidate countries to achieve concrete benefits and progress towards ultimate membership. This is opposite to creating a new hierarchy broken down into stages (as done in the French non paper): instead of making the process flatter, this would create another ‘pyramid’ with further veto opportunities and should therefore be avoided.

But it is also important to not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Existing methodology proved to work well in circumstances where political will to reform, on the one hand, and to enlarge, on the other, were present. Enhancing the chances that these conditions are there in the future should be at the heart of the reform effort. This paper therefore focuses on what the European Commission can do the basis of the existing legal framework and provides a set of recommendations to improve and complement the process as defined by it.

What to do

To answer what EU enlargement should look like, we first need to remind ourselves of what EU integration is all about. Ultimately, this could be summarised around three pillars: member states participate in an economic union, based on shared funds and solidarity; they participate in policy-making, by shaping the future of the EU and of its role in the world; and crucially, they respect and enforce European rules and values.

A revitalised EU enlargement methodology should help candidate countries’ progress towards the EU by matching and reinforcing each of these key areas. The aim of this process should be to stimulate convergence with EU member states, as well as to create a sense of belonging. From an operational standpoint, the Commission should address, within the existing approach, the two principles agreed by all – more tangible benefits and reversibility.

Toughening of EU conditionality: more for more, less for less

A new approach of this kind would necessarily entail more funds allocated to the region in the next budgetary period. The size of the pot for the region should be significant to matter – both for the leaders and for the public. Instead of national envelopes it should allow for allocation according to overall performance and to the meeting of specific conditions. We propose that there should be a firm commitment for no less than EUR 10 billion to be allocated to the WB6 countries for the period 2021-2027.

One part of the pot should be reserved for meeting the “fundamentals first” criteria – democracy and the rule of law & economic development and competitiveness. A significant issue is that these principles are, at present, defined too widely, which hinders proper benchmarking. The EC should thus consider revising the way they produce their annual country reports to introduce a list of priority recommendations for each country, that would specify the area(s) where action is most needed, and that make explicit and concrete recommendations on what the country should achieve in that respect over the next year. These recommendations need to be linked to in-depth analyses, such as those produced by the ‘Priebe reports’.

This money should be made available to all WB countries, irrespective of whether they have already opened their accession talks or not, and it could be used as budgetary support aimed at health, education and public administration, including the all-important capacity to manage EU funds. This would serve two purposes: first, it would strengthen human capital and enhance the institutional capacity in candidate countries, increasing the ability to absorb, and second, by linking disbursement to the progress on fundamentals, the lack of reform or backsliding would get a price tag, which citizens could easily understand.

Conversely, if a country no longer complies with the targets set or is persistently failing to meet them, a principle of reversibility would ensure that this backsliding ‘hurts’ the governments that are responsible for the lack of progress. The funds allocated to the governments should be redirected to other actors working on the priorities that were defined and the government did not meet (e.g. to civil society; to consortia of independent media; to the Ombudsman; or to other independent institutions or grassroots initiatives working to readdress the issues identified). Particular care needs to be exercised not to hurt those who are natural allies in meeting these requirements: it would be, for instance, detrimental to discontinue funding for the Erasmus+ project, to stop support to independent media and civil society, or to cease other initiatives that directly benefit the creation of accountability ecosystems.

Sequencing done right: empowering candidate countries through gradual economic convergence and participation in EU fora

Ultimately, the EU Enlargement process needs to become more concrete. At the time being, the opening of chapters is not accompanied by any benefits associated to these achievements, which heightens the perception of the whole process as a mere box-ticking exercise. An improved approach should envisage that, once a chapter is opened and an action plan to meet the benchmarks agreed, a targeted increase of funds would follow, aimed at supporting achieving the goals set. Based on an improved system of reporting via the annual country reports, the allocation for the following year can be either withdrawn, paused or extended, thus supporting a government to advance reforms and also allowing for a reversal if the reports show no progress.

Similarly, the closing of chapters is only associated with being ‘one step closer to membership’, but without unlocking any tangible benefits for the citizens. This too should change. The EC could envisage a certain amount of EU structural funds to be unlocked (possibly set as a percentage of funds the candidate country would be entitled to as an EU member) after a chapter, or a cluster of chapters, is closed. These funds could be used to support SMEs, employment, infrastructure, and other purposes usually funded by structural funds. This would allow successful candidate countries to gradually converge with member states, rather than exacerbating a widening gap until full membership is reached. Importantly, it would also help candidate countries prepare to absorb the more significant amount of funds that would come with it. Some of these funds should be used as a guarantee to leverage private investment as well as for co-financing with IFIs.

Aside from not bringing any economic benefits, the closing of chapters does not result in the participation in any of relevant EU policies, as the structure is vertical ad it is only after the last step that integration happens. This too should change, so as to allow for a more sectoral, horizontal approach. Closing chapters (or clusters of chapters) would mark the start of including a country in policies relevant for its implementation, by participation as observers in working groups and Council meetings, and, where legally possible, membership of relevant agencies and programmes. While additional funds would promote convergence, this step-by-step integration would prepare a country for obligations that membership would bring and help them build a track record in implementation, convincing the member states of their readiness for membership.

In addition to linking the closing of individual chapters to more funds and participation, the Commission could also consider clustering the chapters so as to encourage more synergies and unlock more benefits. Grouping chapters that are relevant for the functioning of the internal market is one way of doing it. While the Commission could consider incentivising countries to close these chapters first, it would be however important to still allow multiple entry points, with concrete benefits after relevant steps, rather than creating a rigid pathway. Finally, the Commission should make sure that the enlargement is responsive to the direction of travel of the EU and include the WB in planning for the European Green Deal, the digital agenda and other priority areas of its work.

Tackling the elephant in the room, “political will”: Reviving high level political interest in the EU and in the Western Balkans

Another benefit of the renewed emphasis on enlargement is that it became part of a political discussion again, after a long time during which it had been seen, in both member states and aspiring countries, as a purely technocratic process. This quality should be preserved and the attention of leaders in both candidate countries and member states kept focussed on the process. Raising the stakes by making the benefits more concrete and proportional to the individual results of countries would necessarily focus minds in candidate countries. Ensuring that there are regular, at least annual, summits involving leaders from the EU and the WB, would keep the EU side involved at the same level.

A more “political” process could also mean more political vetoes by member states. This unfortunately remains a possibility. However, following the reforms proposed, the Commission’s authority as the arbiter of the enlargement process would be strengthened. Its reports would no longer be merely a stock-taking exercise, but include decisions on allocating or withdrawing funds and on participating in policy areas. This would give it greater clout in its interaction with candidate countries’ governments and would allow it to be sharper and more direct in its assessment of progress achieved.

A more robust and objective reporting system would also enhance the Commission’s position vis-à-vis the member states and would make it more difficult to block progress for internal political reasons.

A strong communication strategy to boot

If the EU wants better buy-in from the region, it must also make sure that its messages are understood by citizens and can’t be easily manipulated by their leaders. Outreach needs to go well beyond the enlargement experts and reach the general public. The focus should be on what needs to be done and what will be the benefits in the short- and medium-term future – and not on abstract long-term prospects, which the leaders can talk about, but which carry little credibility in the views of ordinary people.

Conversely, in cases in which a government does not deliver on benchmarks and loses out on concrete benefits, for instance in the area of environmental standards, these negative consequences for the quality of life of citizens also need to be communicated in concrete terms.

Conclusions: Why the time to act is now

The renewed attention to enlargement will not last forever. It should be used to make the process better – to provide stronger incentives to reform, to give citizens in the region benefits that can be immediately felt, to make non-compliance costly and clearly attributable to those who are responsible for it. Seeing WB countries transform, or pay the price of not doing so, would increase the European influence in the region and convince EU member states that the process is strict while reassuring aspiring members that it is also predictable and fair.

The debate on the future of enlargement should not ignore the broader context. The EU also needs to reflect on the kind of relationships it aims to build and strengthen with the countries in its neighbourhood, for which membership is not on offer. The European public will only support further enlargement if the process is not seen as open-ended. At the same time, the EU must develop better ways to address backsliding in the areas of the rule of law and democratic values among its own member states. Doing so would increase its credibility in the region more than even the best refinement of the methodology could do.

Milica Delevic is a Director of Governance and Political Affairs at EBRD, after holding the position of Deputy Secretary General for Shareholder Relations. Tena Prelec is a Doctoral Researcher at Sussex University, School of Law, Politics and Sociology, and a Research Associate at LSEE-Research on South Eastern Europe, European Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science. Both are members of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG).

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