With the EU accession process of the Western Balkans facing multiple challenges, the role of the European Commission remains crucial both in assessing the progress that candidates achieve but also providing incentives for further reforms and deeper relations between the region and the EU. These were some of the topics Acting Director for the Western Balkans at the European Commission’s DG NEAR Michela Matuella discussed during the Civil Society &Think Tank Forum of the Berlin Process, organised earlier this month. We tackled these issues further in an interview with Ms Matuella.
European Western Balkans: During your panel discussion at this month’s Civil Society & Think Tank Forum of the 2021 Berlin Process, there were some differing interpretations on whether the EU accession process of the Western Balkans was “stuck”. You argued that this is not the case. Can you tell us what is your view on this issue?
Michela Matuella: The Western Balkans are a strategic priority for the EU and this Commission has worked hard to accelerate the accession process. To address the concerns of some Member States, we revised the enlargement methodology last year with the aim to strengthen the process’s credibility, predictability, dynamism, and stronger political steer. This led to the Council’s unanimous decision in March 2020 to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. This was a historic step forward. We would now like to make 2021 the Year of the Western Balkans. In order to achieve that, we work together with the governments in the region to accelerate reforms, and with the EU Member States to take important pending decisions as soon as possible.
EWB: Stuck or not, there is no doubt that the accession process has been going very slowly in the past couple of years, especially compared to the previous rounds of enlargement. At least a part of it, as you also said in the panel, is due to the disagreements between the Member States, especially in the case of North Macedonia and Albania. What is the European Commission doing to overcome this obstacle?
MM: After the Council’s decision to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, we presented to the Council the draft negotiating frameworks for the two countries, laying out the guidelines and principles for their accession talks. The first intergovernmental conference should be convened as soon as possible after the adoption of the negotiating frameworks by the Council. It is now for the Member States to come to an agreement. Enlargement policy is a merit-based process and both countries have delivered. We need to move forward with both countries. The EU’s credibility is at stake.
We encourage both Bulgaria and North Macedonia to find a mutually acceptable solution to pending bilateral issues.
In the meantime, we encourage both Albania and North Macedonia to keep up the reform momentum and continue to advance the EU reform agenda. We will continue to monitor the progress achieved, including in our upcoming enlargement package.
EWB: Given that there have been certain differing interpretations of the implementation of the new methodology, can you confirm for us whether the countries can now only open clusters as a whole, or is there a possibility to open only parts of them (several chapters, but not all within a cluster, for example)?
MM: On 6 May 2021, the Council agreed on the application of the revised enlargement methodology to the accession negotiations with Montenegro and Serbia, after both candidate countries expressed their acceptance of the new methodology. At the Commission, we fully support that the Presidency has convened first inter-governmental conferences under the revised methodology on 22 June. Under the revised methodology, clusters of chapters will be opened in order to increase the dynamism of the process. It will be for the Member States to decide on the way ahead.
EWB: Do you see a possibility for Montenegro and Serbia to close any of their negotiating chapters in the near future? What conditions still need to be met?
MM: Montenegro has opened all 33 chapters, with closing benchmarks set in all except rule of law chapters. The next milestone is meeting the rule of law interim benchmarks – no other chapters will be closed before that, as foreseen in the revised enlargement methodology, which Montenegro has accepted. The country needs to address well-known remaining gaps in the areas of media freedom, the fight against corruption, and organised crime, without opening new issues, in particular on judicial reform. It is also important to bear in mind that, in line with the revised methodology, chapters will not be closed before sufficient anti-corruption policies in that specific chapter have been implemented. Montenegro has to deliver on reforms to create new momentum.
Serbia, on the other hand, has opened 18 out of 35 chapters, two of which have been provisionally closed. We would like to see the remaining chapters, based on the revised methodology now organised in clusters, open as soon as possible. When it comes to the closing of the chapters, what applies to Montenegro also applies to Serbia: no other chapters will be closed unless the rule of law interim benchmarks for the rule of law chapters have been met. Thus, we encourage Serbia to work on meeting the interim benchmarks for chapters 23 and 24, including through a result-oriented implementation of the revised action plans for chapters 23 and 24. The Serbian government has recently taken positive steps, including on the constitutional amendments on the independence of the judiciary, the media strategy and on border and migration management. Serbia needs to continue and to accelerate and deepen reforms on the independence of the judiciary, the fight against corruption, media freedom, the domestic handling of war crimes and the fight against organised crime.
EWB: A significant number of experts have been assessing that the European Commission tends to be insufficiently critical when it comes to the problems within the EU accession process, especially in the case of Serbia. Do you agree with this assessment? Are there differing views within the European Commission, all its directorates working on the region etc, on how to approach these issues?
MM: The Commission reports as part of the Enlargement Package present an objective, detailed assessment prepared by the Commission of the state of play in each candidate country and potential candidate, highlighting what has been achieved over the past year, identifying shortcomings, and setting out guidelines on reform priorities going forward.
In these reports, we have given credit where credit is due. But we also sent a clear message: there are no shortcuts on the way to the EU. Important gaps remain and we have outlined them. We made it clear that we need to see the reforms, especially in the rule of law, implemented more vigorously and that the reforms need to produce sustainable results. These reforms are not ”for Brussels” – whether it is an effective judiciary, robust measures fighting corruption and organised crime, a more efficient public administration, or stronger economy, they are for the welfare of Western Balkans citizens.
On Serbia specifically: As a negotiating country, Serbia is subject to a stringent process and methodology of monitoring and reporting on the rule of law, in particular under chapters 23 (Judiciary and fundamental rights) and 24 (Justice, freedom and security). Progress on these chapters is decisive for the overall speed of Serbia’s EU accession negotiations.
EWB: You have mentioned the Economic and Investment Plan of the European Commission touches upon many areas also covered by the Berlin Process. What has been the implementation of the Economic and Investment Plan so far? Do you believe that the citizens of the Western Balkans recognize its benefits?
MM: The Economic and Investment Plan is the blueprint of the EU’s engagement with the Western Balkans for the coming years. The idea is to provide a boost for the post-COVID19 economic recovery as well as a powerful push towards closing the socio-economic gap between the region and the EU, by focussing our assistance on the key drivers of economic growth as well as green and digital transition. The region needs investment in smart infrastructure and it needs to clean up its environment by transitioning to low-carbon and renewable fuels and greater energy efficiency. It also needs to move towards a less wasteful circular economy based on innovation, and to complete its digital transition. To stop the brain drain, it also needs to continue investing in its human capital to develop the workforce of the future. And finally, our partners need to harness their full economic potential through closer economic cooperation and integration within the region and between the region and the EU. For many of those initiatives, the Berlin Process has served as an incubator but they have now become an integral part of the EU’s policy vis-à-vis the region.
With the Economic and Investment Plan, we have significantly stepped up our commitments. The plan allocates up to EUR 29 billion in funding, a combination of grants, guarantees and preferential loans, for major investments in key areas. We are now in the critical phase of programming IPA III for the next couple of years and prioritising the projects that are ready to be supported in the first phase of the EIP implementation.
The transition will of course not happen overnight, but citizens will start seeing the results in their daily lives very soon. Progress in building the Common Regional Market – including agreements on the freedom of movement within the Western Balkans, on recognition of qualifications, abolition of work permits, trade facilitation, free digital roaming in the Western Balkans and ultimately with the EU – will bring significant and obvious benefits to citizens. The investment projects, while more spectacular, will take longer, but we are nearing the completion of some of the investments launched under the connectivity agenda supported by the Western Balkans Investment Framework. The green and digital transitions will also have a very powerful impact on citizens’ health and wellbeing.