BRUSSELS – When Portugal took over the EU Presidency from Germany on January 1, the expectations about enlargement were far lower than when its predecessor took this role. However, even though enlargement was a priority for the German EU Presidency, no progress has been made in this regard during the previous six months. Moreover, we witnessed Bulgaria blocking discussions among EU ministers on North Macedonia starting negotiations with the EU in November, Albania hasn’t begun its accession negotiations neither, and Serbia did not open a single new negotiating chapter last year. Was Germany’s EU Presidency a failure when it comes to enlargement and what are the reasons for this?
Srđan Cvijić, Senior Analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels and member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), believes that the the German EU Presidency was indeed a failure, but not through is own fault.
“Yes, Germany’s EU Presidency was a failure. However, I would not say that it is Germany’s fault, nor of all the countries in the Western Balkans. Some, such as North Macedonia, deserve to open the first chapters in the EU accession negotiations, but have been denied that right and cannot be said to be at fault. Others, such as Vučić’s Serbia, not only did almost nothing, but the rule of law and democracy, during 2020, further declined, and additional chapters with them were not opened”, says Cvijić for European Western Balkans (EWB).
He explains that when it comes to the EU, the fault lies in countries like Hungary and Poland, or for example Bulgaria, which have blocked the adoption of the European budget due to their narrow-minded and illegitimate interests, or Sofia who blocked the opening of the first negotiating chapters with Skopje.
“Germany’s guilt is that it did not have enough strength to overcome all these obstacles at the last moment”, highlights Cvijić.
What are the expectations from the Portuguese and Slovenian EU Presidency?
Portugal officially assumed the rotating presidency of the Council of European Union on January 1, with a motto of “a fair, green and digital recovery”.
In a statement announcing the priorities of its term presidency, Portugal pledged to “promote recovery leveraged by the climate and digital transitions.” The country also aims to implement a “European Pillar of Social Rights of the EU as a distinctive element for ensuring a fair and inclusive transition” as well as strengthening Europe’s autonomy while remaining open to the world. However, the Western Balkans region, i.e. enlargement, is not among the priorities.
“I sincerely hope that Berlin, in cooperation with Lisbon, will finish what it failed to do during the German presidency. If they fail to do so, I fear we will wait a long time for the next tangible steps in the enlargement process”, underlines Cvijić.
He reminded that the next country to take over the presidency is Slovenia.
“France will hold key presidential elections in April 2022, so it is not to be expected that the politically weak government of Janez Janša will succeed in accelerating the enlargement process in the midst of the French election campaign. If the Portuguese fail, perhaps we will paradoxically see real progress in enlargement only during the French presidency in the second half of 2022”, said Cvijić laughingly.
As EWB wrote earlier, the last two times that EU Members with closer connections to the region – Bulgaria and Croatia – held the Presidency of the Council, positive signals were sent to the Western Balkans. Therefore, another such occasion will be the second half of 2021, when Slovenia will hold the Presidency.
Professor at the University of Graz and BiEPAG coordinator Florian Bieber stated earlier for EWB that having a friend of enlargement holding the Presidency is helpful, but considering that it was under the German presidency that the Bulgarian veto threw a wrench in the process once again, he would not overestimate the influence of the presidency. Bieber added that he believes that Slovene presidency might be marred by political instability domestically.
“Janša’s government is unstable and might collapse until then. This does not just matter for the ability of Slovenia to have a presidency in general that is not absorbed by political tensions, but also could affect its ability to effectively put the Western Balkans on the agenda”, stressed Bieber.
However, he believes that there is a reason for hope in 2021.
“While it is uncertain that North Macedonia and Albania will progress this year, I would think the odds are good. After Bulgarian elections (scheduled for March) there will be a chance to find a face-saving way out for Bulgaria. However, if that opportunity is missed, the risk will be that the veto “settles in” and becomes harder to challenge in the subsequent period”, Bieber concluded.