Days after the publication of the European Commission’s proposal for a new methodology of accession negotiations, the most important questions are whether it will help persuade sceptical members to drop their opposition to opening talks with North Macedonia and Albania, and will Serbia and Montenegro join the new methodology, if it is adopted. We talked about the main aspects of the Commission’s proposal with Natasha Wunsch, Assistant Professor of Political Science/European Integration at Sciences Po and Senior Researcher at the European Politics Group at ETH Zurich. Wunsch is also a member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG).

European Western Balkans: The European Commission has published its proposal for the revision of the EU enlargement methodology. What would you single out as the biggest change from the previous process?

Natasha Wunsch: The most important change is certainly the notable shift in target audience: whereas the 2018 strategy was mainly geared towards Western Balkan governments, promising “enhanced EU engagement” in the region across a number of policy fields, the 2020 document emphasizes the “political steer” of the accession process and seeks to assuage enlargement-sceptic member states.

The Commission effectively finds itself in a tricky position, having to satisfy multiple target audiences with conflicting priorities. While the Western Balkans governments need to be convinced that their enlargement perspective remains credible, some member states are eager to see renewed emphasis on strict conditionality and to retain a greater say in negotiations. Finally, reform-minded citizens in the region want to hear the Commission call out negative trends, while nonetheless supporting political change on the ground.

Given the circumstances, the Commission has succeeded rather well at this balancing act by addressing the main concerns of all three groups. The new methodology underlines a credible enlargement perspective while simultaneously stressing the fundamentals first approach as well as the reversibility of accession negotiations. Moreover, it openly acknowledges the political nature of the process and the important role of member state involvement in the monitoring of reform progress on the ground.

EWB: Even during the press conference dedicated to the presentation of the proposals, journalists commented on the fact that many of the proposed mechanisms have already been available. Do you agree, and does this diminish the value of the proposals?

NW: The proposal indeed builds on many existing mechanisms, including an emphasis on fundamentals first and the hitherto unused “imbalance clause” that can be triggered when countries make insufficient progress on rule of law issues, but I do not necessarily see this as a weakness. Instead, the Commission finally seems to want to make most of the toolbox at its disposal, both when it comes to incentivizing reforms and to threatening sanctions in the form of a slowdown or even suspension of negotiations in cases of lack of progress.

EWB: Do you believe that the countries which were against the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, France in particular, will be satisfied enough with the proposed changes to drop their opposition in the coming months?

NW: The proposal picks up on several of the ideas mentioned in the French non-paper of November 2019, most notably by granting a stronger role to political oversight by member states, bundling together different negotiation chapters into thematic clusters, and emphasizing the reversibility of negotiations should candidate countries fall back on their reform commitments. I therefore think the revised methodology stands a good chance of prompting France, and specifically French President Macron, to consent to the opening of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia at the upcoming EU-Western Balkans summit in May.

EWB: Do you expect Serbia and Montenegro to “opt-in” to the new methodology if it is accepted? Will it be possible for the EU to lead two different accession processes if they do not?

NW: Given the mainly cosmetic changes between the Commission’s approach to negotiations to date and the ‘new’ methodology set out in its most recent document, there is no reason why Serbia and Montenegro should decide to remain outside the revised framework. If anything, the bundling of reforms and the envisaged timeline of one year per reform cluster might speed up negotiations for the two countries, as long as they deliver on their commitments. Should they refuse to opt in nonetheless, the similarity in contents should not overly complicate the matters for the Commission.

EWB: Is the European Commission correct to put even more emphasis on both the fundamentals and political aspects of the process? How would you assess its performance when it comes to these issues in Serbia and Montenegro in particular over the recent years?

NW: The Commission’s renewed emphasis on the fundamentals is crucial given the negative trends in democratic performance that could be observed in particular among the current ‘frontrunners’ in the negotiations, and the frequent failure on the part of the Commission to call out such developments more forcefully. By emphasizing the crucial nature of political reforms, the Commission seeks to re-establish some of the credibility of its democratic conditionality.

The emphasis on political steering is a nod to enlargement-sceptic member states such as France and the Netherlands that have become increasingly wary that the Commission’s desire to keep the enlargement process alive may have led it to overlook some of the backsliding trends among candidate countries in recent years. By emphasizing fundamentals and recalling its ability to suspend negotiations in the absence of progress on rule of law issues, the Commission sends an important signal to both candidate state governments and EU member states that it is placing renewed focus on this area that is crucial for any meaningful transformation of governance in the region to take place.

EWB: The dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina was also mentioned as a priority in the methodology. After the formation of the new government of Kosovo and apparently more engagement from both the US and the EU, do you expect the breakthrough in this area after more than a year of deadlock?

NW: The desire to see progress regarding the normalisation of Belgrade-Pristina relations has led some EU institutions – most notably the European External Action Service – to overlook or even downplay pervasive state capture and the gradual expansion of executive powers in Serbia in recent years. Renewed attention to the dialogue on Kosovo should therefore occur in a context of simultaneous focus on the state of democracy in both Serbia and Kosovo. Whether there is actual progress in the Kosovo dialogue will also depend on the extent to which the EU and US special envoys on this question can establish a common agenda and push the two parties towards a joint objective.

EWB: Do you believe that the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU this week will have any influence on the Union’s focus towards the Western Balkans?

NW: The United Kingdom has traditionally been a more enlargement-friendly country and its departure will therefore shift more weight towards remaining large member states that have a more hesitant opinion on widening, first and foremost France. At the same time, the pursuit of EU enlargement and eventually the successful admission of new member states would send a powerful signal that the EU remains attractive as a regional community and is capable of supporting candidate countries in completing a process of democratic transformation.