European Western Balkans

The French non-paper: Are there any implications for Kosovo’s EU integration process?

Almost two decades passed since the Thessaloniki summit, whereby EU prospects were offered to the Balkan countries; however, the rule of law and social well-being in these countries are still lacking. Other sectors such as governance, education, and health suffer from poor quality and have been improving immensely slowly. Given that, France considered it necessary to offer a renewed approach to the enlargement policy by calling it the French non-paper.

On the other side of the discourse, many Balkan and EU analysts perceive the French non-paper as a product of justification for the blockade towards opening of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. While others view it as an attempt of the French to reflect more serious engagement in the Enlargement process after Macron’s statement that the EU needs to ‘deepen’ before it takes a decision to ‘widen’. No matter which of the three above viewpoints is more correct than the other, the French non-paper was introduced to the supranational EU institutions and is seriously being discussed at all levels of policy making and debate. Kosovo’s public discourse is no exclusion. Thus, one of the most frequent questions posed is – can the French non-paper affect Kosovo in its integration path? This opinion piece does not provide conclusions on the issue, but instead it discusses the new approach of the accession process and its implications on Kosovo’s integration path.

Different from the current enlargement process, the French non-paper introduces four principles including gradual association, stringent conditions, tangible benefits, and reversibility.

The first principal, gradual association, introduces seven thematic policy blocks instead of the thirty-five Acquis chapters that compromised the negotiations process. Likewise the current approach, the rule of law and fundamental rights remain a crucial and a cross cutting policy issue to be successfully implemented by candidate countries. The key difference is that the policy blocks would not be able to open simultaneously as the Acquis chapters, instead the process would be based on several successive stages.

The second principal, stringent conditions, entails two key elements including the criteria for moving from one stage to the next and easily and objectively verifiable indicators. This principle can relate to the continuous discussions on improving the benchmarking system while producing more concrete indicators that would be much easily measured.

The third principle, tangible benefits, highlights increased financial support. Such support from the EU is conditioned upon implementation of reforms. The non-paper further notes that the financial support could be provided through an increase in the pre-accession instrument and also making candidate countries eligible for structural funds. This principle would provide tangible incentives for the governments to push forward reforms and might also aid citizens grasp benefits of integration into the Union.

The fourth principle, reversibility, is introduced as a new dimension to the process. According to this principle, once a candidate country stops embracing certain rules belonging to any of the seven policy blocks, the EU would suspend the specific country from enjoying previously granted benefits or it would step the country backwards in the process. The EU could also suspend the country from the integration path once EU fundamental values are at risk in that specific country.

For all those who were skeptical about the French stance on enlargement, the non-paper clarifies that it supports full accession as the final goal of the EU engagement for all Balkan countries including Kosovo. However, the non-paper notes that Member States would review regular evaluations done by the Commission on the progress made by each country.

Firstly, in my opinion, additional reviews of the yearly reports by the Member States shifts more power to the Council, thus leaving room for a more subjective and unpredictable assessment process, rather than an objective and a merit-based one. This would have potential negative implications on Kosovo’s path to the Union, due to the five non-recognizers. Apart from the five non-recognizers, members states themselves could introduce new criteria for Kosovo with the mere aim of satisfying potential populist or anti-enlargement voters in their countries, at the expense of Commission’s evidence-based findings.

Secondly, since Kosovo is not yet a candidate country and, thus has not opened negotiations, there will be no implications as to what thematic policy block the country belongs to once the country enters into the negotiations phase. If the French non-paper is to replace the current negotiation process, then Kosovo would start from its first stage, as cited in the document – rule of law, fundamental rights, justice and security instead of opening specific chapters. The issue is different for Montenegro and Serbia who are already in the negotiation process and it is yet unclear how the new strategy will impact their current state of negotiations.

Thirdly, the reversibility criterion if applied can have enormous political costs for the Kosovo government. Thus, the reversibility option only by being part of the enlargement policy can have potential positive implications in the context of pursuing and implementing reforms in the framework of conditionality. Given that, and considering that a merit-based system is in place, the country can advance further in its integration path.

As an endnote, I consider that it is important to highlight that no new enlargement methodology can replace the willingness and commitment of the governments to undertake the required reforms within the conditionality framework. Neither can any new strategy, including the French non-paper, replace the current EU reluctance to enlarge. On top of these two, the resolution of bilateral disputes remains another key dynamic in the enlargement process. Thus, not a single new dimension to enlargement can surprisingly ‘solve’ the final objective of the process- the Balkan’s EU membership.

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