European Commission presents its proposal for a new enlargement methodology

Oliver Varhelyi in AFET; Photo: European Union

BRUSSELS – The College of the European Commission has adopted a proposal for a new methodology for the accession negotiations today.

“The whole process needs to be more credible, more predictable, more dynamic and more political”, stated the European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi while presenting the Commission’s proposal at a press conference today.

He explained that the purpose of the proposal is to re-establish the credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans.

The highlights of the document include clustering the negotiating chapters in thematic areas, possibility for rewarding the reforms with more funding and phasing-in of candidates to individual policies, but also sanctioning lack of progress by putting the negotiations on hold in certain areas, or in the most serious cases, their overall suspension.

An even stronger focus should be given to the fundamentals, with roadmaps for the rule of law and democratic institutions, the Commission proposes. According to the document, The EU should deliver on its unwavering commitment to a merit-based process, and the political nature of the process should be put front and center with mechanisms such as regular EU-Western Balkans summits, country-specific intergovernmental conferences and more focus on political issues by the Stabilisation and Association bodies.

One of the notable proposals is that the public political commitment of their authorities to the strategic goal of EU accession will be assessed more clearly in the annual reports.

According to the Commission, the process needs to be better equipped to deal with structural weaknesses in the countries, in particular in the area of the fundamentals, including rule of law and functioning market economy.

The proposed changes do not automatically include the countries that have already started their accession processes, Serbia and Montenegro. They could, however, be accommodated within the existing frameworks with the agreement of these two countries.

The reform of the enlargement methodology is an ongoing effort kicked off last autumn with the failure of the European Council to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania being the immediate motive.

“Good message to our Western Balkans friends about EU enlargement process: Today the European Commission proposes a credible & dynamic plan paving the way for opening accession talks with North Macedonia & Albania. EU enlargement is a WIN-WIN situation”, tweeted Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission leading up to the press conference.

What is in the Commission’s proposal?

Even stronger focus on fundamentals

“All parties must abstain from misusing outstanding issues in the EU accession process. In the same vein, Member States and institutions must speak with one voice in the region, sending clear signals of support and encouragement, and speaking clearly and honestly on shortcomings when they occur”, the European Commission proposes.

According to the document, even stronger focus should be on the fundamental reforms. As before, negotiations in these areas will be opened first and closed last, and there will be roadmaps for the rule of law and functioning democratic institutions, as well as stronger link with the economic reform programme process.

Additionally, all efforts need to be undertaken to resolve bilateral disputes, with a particular emphasis on the EU-facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, which should be concluded with a comprehensive, legally binding normalisation agreement.

Political nature of the process front and centre

The Commission wants to bring the political nature of the process to the forefront through regular EU-Western Balkans summits and intensified ministerial contacts. In this way, the Member States will be invited to contribute more systematically to the accession process, while they will also have an opportunity to monitor and review the process more closely.

The goal is to establish that the accession is not moving on autopilot but must reflect an active societal choice on the part of the candidates to reach and respect the highest European standards and values.

EC also proposes more political focus by the bodies establihed by the Stabilisation and Association Agreements. Another novelty is introducing Inter-Governmental Conferences (IGCs), which “should provide for stronger political steering of the accession negotiations process”.

The conferences shall take place after publication of the Commission’s annual package of reports on each country, take stock of the overall accession process, and set out the planning for the year ahead, including opening and closing of chapters.

On the other hand, the Stabilisation and Association Councils that shall allow a stronger monitoring of progress and address aspects of accelerated integration in the respective clusters.

Clustering of the negotiating chapters

Similar to the French non-paper from November 2019, European Commission proposes organising the negotiating chapters in thematic clusters. Negotiations on each cluster will be opened as a whole – after fulfilling the opening benchmarks – rather than on an individual chapter basis. Closing benchmarks, however, would be set for each chapter.

There are six proposed clusters: Fundamentals (including current chapters 23 and 24), Internal Market, Competitiveness and Inclusive Growth, Green Agenda and Sustainable Connectivity, Resources, Agriculture and Cohesion and External Relations.

To inject more dynamism in the negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro, the Commission proposes work on chapters can also be organised around clusters, while respecting the existing negotiating frameworks and with the agreement of these countries.

Rewards and sanctions

The Commission proposes better mechanisms for incentivising the countries to move forward with their reform efforts, as well as sanctioning them if it comes to “any serious or prolonged stagnation or even backsliding”.

Among the two named rewards for a sufficient progress are “phasing-in” to individual EU policies, the EU markets and EU programmes and increased funding and investments and “reform-oriented Instrument for Pre-accession support”.

When it comes to sanctions, EU proposes the possibility that the that negotiations can be put on hold in certain areas, or in the most serious cases, suspended overall, and downgrading the scope and intensity of the “rewards” – EU funding and benefits of closer integration.