When Pierre Mirel, former Director at the European Commission, published his paper on revising the negotiation framework for the Western Balkans countries for the Robert Schuman Foundation last September, it initiated a debate on reforming the enlargement process. His proposals have influenced the subsequent French and other member states’ non-papers, as well as the reformed methodology proposed by the Commission and eventually adopted by the Council in March 2020.

We had the pleasure to speak with Pierre Mirel, who was the Director at DG Enlargement from 2001 to 2013 and is currently a lecturer at the Sciences Politiques-Paris, about several important issues, from the expectations of the new enlargement methodology, through the events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic to the future of reconciliation in the region.

European Western Balkans: What is your opinion of the reformed enlargement methodology? Did it address the main problems of the process?

Pierre Mirel: Membership negotiations have obeyed for too long to chapters opening and closing rituals, away from any sectoral consistency. Moreover, Council presidencies often pushed for chapters to be opened or closed for being able to claim “victory” during their mandate, sometimes at the expense of rigor in the process. The reformed accession methodology is therefore positive, in particular on five aspects.

The cluster approach will allow a stronger focus on sectors, such as on the “internal market”, which should appeal to the interest groups, in this case the economic operators.

The crucial importance of the “fundamentals”, under cluster 1, is confirmed and roadmaps will be provided, on top of the current Action plans for chapters 23 and 24. The Picula’s report adopted by the European parliament on 22 April has fully endorsed this approach.

The closing of clusters would open up the participation of the countries into the EU related programmes, although one should recall that Western Balkan countries have already joined a great number of them.

Member states are invited to exercise a greater political governance. Although some observers fear it, I believe that the politisation of the accession negotiations can only help the process, away from a more bureaucratic approach often perceived as a Brussels-based machinery.

A performance-based is introduced in relation to the Instrument for Pre-accession assistance, IPA. Together with the “reversibility” clause whereby “serious stagnation or even backsliding” can be sanctioned financially, they provide interesting incentive and warning.

Will these incentives be attractive enough to boost the reform process and avoid backsliding remains to be seen. Whatever the accession framework, the keys to progress are the political willingness on both sides. On the side of the candidates to implement their commitments, and on the EU side to draw conclusions from backsliding situations and to honour its promises when conditions are fulfilled.

What I call the “Montenegro paradox” that I summarise in three numbers “32-3-8” is a striking example: 32 chapters opened and only 3 closed in 8 years!

EWB: Do you think that the changes to the methodology will be enough to make the process successful and can any methodology actually do it? Is it even a matter of methodology?

PM: No, I don’t think so. There are positive elements indeed, which I listed. But the key to progress, irrespective of the methodology, is the political willingness on both sides. If the candidates do not implement the commitments they made, how will they progress further? And if the EU would not honour its promises, then you would not expect any methodology to change the situation. Political willingness is absolutely the key.

The other element which is for me very important is a financial package, and I do not think that what the Council has decided still answers the needs in the Western Balkans. A lot has been done and a lot is underway, but it is not enough, including for helping health care services and education systems which are in very poor condition.

Western Balkans countries' flags during Berlin process
Western Balkans countries’ flags during Berlin process

Therefore, the EU should come up with a real package. That is missing. Even the French had proposed to open up the structural funds, which I suggested (in a paper last September at La Fondation Robert Schuman) albeit in a gradual manner, based on the “more for more approach”. You would start with 20 or 30 percent and then you would say – well, if you undertake these key reforms A, B, C, D then, for example, you move from 20 percent of the structural funds to 30.

Otherwise, I am not sure that the leaders, whether president Vučić or some others are really interested in undertaking key reforms that are going to challenge their power very deeply.

EWB: Is the fact that the methodology was adopted – as well as negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia opened – evidence that there is now political will for enlargement among member states? Was it ever a problem?

PM: There has been until now an evident vicious circle, except in Albania and North Macedonia over the past three years: we pretend to reform, they pretend to accept us.

We should acknowledge that the burden of the proof is on the candidates. Therefore, how could EU member states be inclined to engage seriously into the process with countries where “state capture” is predominant, as the European Commission and many NGOs have stated? Why would EU leaders be willing to move the process forward when most Western Balkan leaders commit themselves to reform and reconciliation, summits after conferences, for so many years, but without translating their words into deeds?

North Macedonia and Albania have clearly departed from that bleak situation by undertaking deep fundamental reforms – including on good neighbourly relations by Skopje, so far the only regional courageous example – therefore paving the way to the EU honouring its words. Although it should have occurred in October 2019 where the European Council should have said “yes” in exchange for a Commission’s proposal for a revision of the accession framework, as I suggested in Le Monde on 24 October last year.

EWB: When it comes to the question of why would member states want to engage with countries which demonstrate clear signs of state capture, critics often say that it is actually the lack of perspective for EU membership and the policy of stabilitocracy which are to blame for these countries ever going into the direction of state capture in the first place.

PM: Personally, I do not buy this argument. When looking at Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, some academics say that they don’t undertake all the key reforms because of the lack of EU perspective. Fine, it could be an important reason. But then, what about the Balkans which have this perspective since the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003? And nevertheless the process is not moving as expected. Therefore, it is my strong feeling that the leaders – with the exception of Prime ministers Zaev and Rama – prefer to keep their short-term gains by staying in power by all means, including state capture, over the long-term benefits of accession.

Rama, Vučić and Zaev; Photo: Tanjug/Tanja Valić

This is why my idea of a strong large financial package comes into that reflection. Because if the EU would dispose of such a package, then it could buy the reforms, for it would be able to attach a major increase of financial support to deep reforms. Until and unless we do that, I do not think that any methodology is going to change things rapidly.

At Thessaloniki, we underestimated the legacy of the war and we just continued the same process and tools that had been successful with Central European countries, but it was a completely different situation. And that was the mistake.

We should have come in 2003/4/5 with, let’s call it a Marshall Plan in a lack of other word, huge financial package that you normally provide after a war, and we did not do that. There was money for reconstructing bridges and similar, but not a financial package commensurate with the needs. You know the history of Yugoslavia better than I do, big investments basically stopped in the ’80s, and then things have started to collapse and no major investments have been made afterwards.

And now, 30-40 years later, there are still huge investments needs. And with six countries in small, fragmented markets, foreign direct investments remain scattered. We should have put economy first. This is why I am now pleading for the cluster approach, providing the countries move fast on the Single market. Once they align their legislation with European legislation, it will, in my view, create a big incentive for foreign investments, providing that, in parallel, they continue putting in place the Action plan for a regional economic area, which was agreed in Trieste in 2017- under the Berlin Process. The recently established “Green corridors” at the borders to facilitate the flow of trucks amid the pandemic crisis, under the RCC’s responsibility, shows that progress is rapidly achieved when the political will exists.

EWB: The EU-WB summit will take place (online) on 6 May, 20 years after the first Zagreb summit and 17 years after Thessaloniki. Could we say that the achievements in the past two decades are not impressive?

PM: They are limited indeed. The situation has even worsened in some countries, for example in the healthcare system due to a high level of migration. So, not only the Western Balkans have not benefitted from their EU perspective as expected, but they are also enriching some EU member states through their workers, doctors and nurses, while some Balkans regions may well fall short of medical care.

We have greatly underestimated the war legacy and the lack of major investments since the 80’. As I explained, the EU should have offered a large financial package after Thessaloniki, putting the economy first. Moreover, the EU has privileged stability over democracy for too long, in the hope that the main bilateral issues would be resolved by strong leaders. The result is “stabilocracy” as some academics claim, bilateral issues still active and increased interference of re-emerging countries.

EWB: At the Sofia EU-WB Summit in May 2018, President Macron said that the EU should reform itself before it enlarges. What do you think of that position?

PM: Many member states scorn this French refrain that seems to oppose “deepening” and “enlarging”, as it did in the 90’ actually. But we are not anymore in the post Berlin Wall situation when the historic 5th enlargement process eventually rallied a wide consensus – although we tend to forget the reluctance of several member states in the 90’ – while Western Balkans waged a war in what Adam Michnik called “nationalism, the ultimate stage of communism”.

Let’s see the reality: the EU is now facing a “polycrises” situation, to use former Commission president Juncker’s words, the COVID-19 sanitary crisis being a new, additional, unprecedented one. The EU is obviously confronted to an “existential situation” where solidarity has waned.

Deep reforms are therefore needed and a sense of unity should prevail, which applicant countries should fully support to avoid joining a weakened group. Moreover, the mere fact that two member states, namely Hungary and Poland, have departed so much from the Copenhagen accession criteria – the basis for their qualification at the time – is detrimental to future accessions.

Family Photo at the Sofia Summit; Photo: Bulgarian EU Presidency / Flickr

So, yes, internal reforms should take place and I do hope that Western Balkan countries will be part of the “Conference on the future of Europe” in that respect. However, EU internal reforms and membership negotiations are not mutually exclusive processes, since the length of the latter can be long indeed.

EWB: Will the new methodology perhaps speed up the process? Also, what effects it may have on countries who already negotiate – Serbia and Montenegro?

PM: With the “clusters approach”, I very much hope that the process will be speeded up for the economic sectors, the internal market in the first place. As I explained already, progress is badly needed to boost investments and inter-Western Balkans trade, as a key pillar together with the Regional economic area. Progress in these fields, together with a much higher EU financing, would help creating jobs, and therefore, hopefully, reducing migration which is, in my view, the biggest Western Balkans issue these days.

The Western Balkans Investment Framework has already financed a great number of essential connectivity projects: 700 million euro grants leveraged some 2,4 billion euro loan financing between 2015 and 2019. This is impressive indeed and compares well with the loans provided by Russia and China at unknown and opaque conditions. As mentioned above, this is however not sufficient to answer the Western Balkan needs, including in assisting the education and healthcare systems.

EWB: Do you expect that Serbia and Montenegro will accept the new methodology? There have been some mixed signals so far.

PM: I think they should. Frankly, what do they have to lose? Look at Montenegro, 32 chapters opened, only 3 closed in eight years, we have never seen that. I think that they can only gain from accepting the new methodology.

EWB: But maybe some of them actually like things to stay this way, that they can always put the blame on the EU?

PM: Exactly, that is the other side of the process. This is what I said before: short-term gains over long-term benefits. Therefore, the key reforms are not undertaken and it is easy to blame member states, in particular when you have a decision like October last year when France, Denmark and Netherlands refused to open accession negotiations.

EWB: Do you believe that the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects, including an apparent pro-China turn in Serbia, might move all attention away from enlargement, or perhaps the opposite – that it’s a signal that enlargement in the Western Balkans needs to be done as soon as possible?

PM: Let me be clear: medical equipment supply by China is not a problem in itself, whether to Italy or to Serbia, in so far as China hosts some 80% of the world production, (which incidentally poses a “sanitary sovereignty” question to the EU). And, after all, China is only helping the EU in return for the latter’s assistance end January with 56 tons of medical equipment at China’s request, although too discreetly provided at China’s request, it seems!

What is striking though is the “mask diplomacy” played by both the Chinese government and the Serbian one. For president Vučić claiming that “EU solidarity is a fairy tale” and kissing the Chinese flag when the EU is by far the first aid donor to Serbia since more than 20 years; calling president Xi his “brother”, implying that EU member states are some remote cousins when his government claims to be eager to join that family, are gestures and statements not fair obviously, but also not likely to please EU taxpayers and top officials.

Prime Minister of Serbia Ana Brnabić, President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić and Ambassador of China to Serbia Chen Bo; Photo: Tanjug / Dragan Kujundžić

It looks at best as naive and populist, and at worst as a political mistake. I think that it will leave traces and is not likely to help Serbia in its accession process. Once more, short term political gains are privileged over long term benefits of EU membership.

There is no doubt that the EU ban on medical equipment export should not have excluded the Western Balkans, and it’s good that meanwhile it was corrected. It is true also that the EU should become more “aggressive” in marketing its assistance. What about billboards in Belgrade streets to tell the citizens that the EU has spent over 450 million euros in hospital support, as grants from EU taxpayers, over the past 10 years?

But even with a better PR campaign, Serbian media may continue to follow the government approach instead of looking for facts and figures as their deontology would suggest. This explains why Serbia went down from the 59th rank in 2016 to the 93rd position in 2019, according to Reporters without Borders’ recent report.

That being said, I am proud of the European Commission’s proposal on 29 April of a 3,3 billion euro package for the Western Balkans. It includes the 38 million emergency reallocation, 389 million for social and recovery needs, 455 million for SMEs in an innovative mechanism through local banks, 750 million macro-financial support, 1.7 billion preferential loans from the EIB, 12,5 million for migrants stranded in the region and the access to the Solidarity Fund normally reserved for the member States. “We have a special responsibility to assist in this pandemic our partners in the Western Balkans, as their future clearly lies in the European Union” stated Ursula von der Leyen. This is an impressive package, which translates the EU support to the region in very concrete means indeed.

Moreover, the Commission has announced a substantial “economic and recovery plan” later in the year. Altogether, it bodes well of a genuine reengagement of the EU and therefore of more promising accession negotiations prospects.

EWB: Do you think that EU leaders are actually paying attention to what Vučić says and does in these circumstances and do you think there will be some consequences for him and Serbia?

PM: Well, I don’t know how they will react, but I think it will leave traces as it was clearly a political mistake. It is logical that citizens in Belgium, France and elsewhere are more interested in what is happening to their daily lives these days because of the pandemic, than what is happening in Serbia.  However, several newspapers have clearly expressed their, let’s say, anger at president Vučić’s statement. This is why I am mentioning taxpayers. Some politicians in Europe could well say: “Why should we support Serbia whose president says EU solidarity is “a fairy tale”, when we have been helping it with 200 million euros every year?”

I think there will be traces, not immediately, but when looking to open extra number of chapters, etc. I am sure if conditions are not clearly fulfilled, then it will not be “easy” for member states to carry the process further.

EWB: Speaking about reconciliation in the region, it appears that Western Balkans countries are farther from reconciliation than ever, as nationalism increasingly dominates the mainstream, especially in some countries. What can the EU do to combat this?

PM: Western Balkan countries are farther from reconciliation than ever indeed. The promising initiatives in 2013-2014 – are running up against obstacles in all areas of “reconciliation”.

Firstly, transitional justice is far too slow, in Sarajevo where the revised strategy is still blocked in parliament, but also in the cooperation between the war crime prosecutors of Zagreb, Belgrade and Sarajevo. One can wonder whether elected people really care about victims and their families.

Second, glorification of war criminals and hate speeches have become common these days. Even an NGO-sponsored initiative like RECOM is now ignored in Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia. Once more, leaders’ commitments are not honoured.

In the face of that serious backsliding, I think that the EU should continue supporting the process through rewarding progress in the countries’ agreements with their neighbours – like North Macedonia with Greece – and strong public reconciliation gestures, keeping “good neighbourly relations” as a key condition for accession and helping to reach it, and naming and shaming hate speeches, war criminal glorification and ethno-nationalist discourses. It should also continue supporting strongly all the courageous NGOs which keep fighting for addressing the tragic war events, honouring the victims and writing a common narrative.

EWB: We see that the EU keeps insisting on resolving open bilateral issues, but do you think that the EU should pay more attention to narratives used by the governments? We had an example of the name dispute between North Macedonia and Greece being resolved with a change of narrative, while on the other hand we see that in Serbia-Kosovo example, there were numerous agreements reached, but there has basically not been any change of the narrative in either of the two.

PM:  Absolutely! This is why I am clearly saying that the EU should condemn all speeches against reconciliation – in line with the leaders’ commitments at the 2018 London summit – and continue helping NGOs to write a common narrative.

London Summit Leaders Meeting; Photo: Flickr / Western Balkans Summit 2018

But you should not mix up the fact that most of the agreements between Kosovo and Serbia were not implemented with hate speech or whatever. It’s also because of the way the dialogue has been conducted by the EU over the past couple of years.

EWB: You could say that one of the reasons why there was no implementation is because there was not enough support precisely because the narrative didn’t change.

PM: Well, it’s a vicious circle. Narratives didn’t change, agreements were not implemented, and then it leads to another nasty narrative, I agree.

But, at the same time, look at the way the dialogue has been conducted, almost secretly. The agreements were too vague sometimes and had no clear roadmap as to who would do what and when. Both negotiators, when going back to Pristina and Belgrade after agreeing in Brussels, were used to give press conferences with a completely different interpretation of what had been agreed.

So, it was a mistake not to have a clearer agreement with a roadmap and a close follow-up and monitoring, along the following steps: “You agreed, say on telecom, and in one month we will visit you and we will be looking for laws, decrees, decisions or whatever, that you promised to prepare”. Unfortunately, it did not happen.

And here comes the reward progress. As soon as there is progress on bilateral issues, the EU should reward it, with a financial support.  It’s not the easiest, but the best way to do it. With countries that have an emigration level very high and a health care system in despair, the way to push for agreements is to reward them positive achievements.

EWB:  Going back to the issue of a common narrative, we seem to be moving away from a common narrative, and not towards it. Do you think that is actually realistic that we are going to find a common narrative for all countries of the Western Balkans? Is it actually possible to do in short or medium term?

PM: No, absolutely not. Last year, six months before the Poznan meeting of the Berlin Process, I was asked by the European Commission to undertake a mission to help pushing for a reconciliation declaration by the WB leaders in Poznan, around the RECOM initiative. We invited them to send a representative at a preparatory meeting. Presidents Vučić, Đukanović and Thaçi, as well as Prime minister Zaev responded positively and agreed that RECOM should be continued and there should be a declaration in Poznan. But who did not send anyone? Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia.

Western Balkans Summit in Poznań; Photo: Flickr / Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland / Tymon Markowski / MSZ

Meeting top officials of the three ethnic groups in Sarajevo, I was really shocked that the Bosniaks considered RECOM as “obsolete” and that the Croats did not react. Beyond the RECOM question as a concept and as a name, why is it that the aim of reconciliation got lost? It’s been backsliding for some five years now.

EWB: So, do you think that this top down approach where countries should be rewarded if they move towards reconciliation can be successful without bottom-up initiatives which are going to influence the narratives?

PM: I don’t think so. Also, the situation in Croatia has worsened. For me, it’s first and foremost bottom-up. But top-down cannot be ignored. The EU should not say: well, it doesn’t work, there are no common narratives, leaders are not helping, so we need to forget it. No, I think it should be both.

If there would be at least a common declaration – which failed in London, failed in Poznan –  it could be used afterwards as a basis to move. A declaration is by no means a panacea, but it is a small step for building up the process. I agree that a bottom-up approach should be favoured and fully supported by the EU.