By Arolda Elbasani and Miruna Butnaru-Troncotă
Beyond the ravaging impact of the COVID pandemic, 2020 was a game changing year for European Union (EU) enlargement policy. Few weeks before the entire global agenda would be focused on measures to combat the sanitary crisis, the EU announced significant changes to its enlargement methodology. In its February 2020 Communication, Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi presented the main changes brought to the strategy. We argue here that both the drive of the new strategy and the resulting choices reflect the EU’s need to balance between two diverse and at times contradicting goals – to ensure sustainable reforms at the receiving end of enlargement (better monitoring) while allowing individual member countries more room for participation in the process (increased politicisation).
Many things have changed since last year’s Revision, but we need to look in greater detail at the new methodology for enlargement and to reflect on why these changes are crucial for the years to come in the specific case of Kosovo.
In the last 2 years, the level of commitment to enlargement in the Western Balkans seemed to be eroding to EU’s internal problems. Consequently, EU was constantly under severe pressure on the topic of enlargement, both from outside and from its members.
Some states felt they are loosing control over this process and they wanted a better saying in the process, thus asking for a change in the enlargement methodology. These countries were also under heavy populist pressure in front of their domestic audience – like Macron in France. But the new von der Leyen Commission needed to act and recognise that something went wrong with the decade long efforts put into the process in the Western Balkans. So in February 2020 the Commission took on board the French policy proposals.
Commissioner Verhely underlined that: “Enlargement is a key political project, which is firmly merit-based and has a full membership prospect for the entire region”. Thus, the new methodology pursues two conflicting tendencies – the need for better monitoring: “we will continue with the merit-based approach and only a merit-based approach, therefore assessment of the progress is key and the reinforcement of the assessment is key” together with increased politicisation.
Yet, each of these tendencies poses both challenges and new opportunities for the prospect of target countries to conduct the necessary reforms and join the EU in the years to come. So in our view EU needs to balance between these opposite tendencies – politicisation and better monitoring.
Next, we aim to stress that these two tendencies can be particularly challenging in the context of weak and contested statehood as in the case of Kosovo, a potential candidate country with multiple unsolved issues on the EU integration path.
Based on discussions with experts on this case, we conclude that in the case of Kosovo the tendency for politicisation by numerous member states remains stronger than that of better monitoring, and this poses a serious threat to moving on with the process.
Better Monitoring of Reforms
A major trend of the revised EU conditionality in general, and the 2020 new methodology in particular, is to improve tracking of reforms in a context where candidates and potential candidates from the Balkans tend to embrace the goal of the EU and required reforms, but still show stagnation.
Typically, the EU enlargement rewards, especially promised updates of the relations with the EU and ample assistance, have appealed to all countries in the region. In all WB 6 countries we can see a new generation of pragmatist elites betting their fortunes on the goal of EU accession that have sidelined if not replaced hard core nationalists and their anti-EU counterparts.
These pragmatist elites are more prone to engage with the EU and show ‘enthusiastic’ support for the goal of the EU membership.
They have also reshuffled party and government programs and even overhauled the entire institutional framework in line with the EU requirements. EU-led verbal and legal institutional changes come in various forms: numerous reform strategies, action plans, cross institutional coordination groups, parliamentary initiatives, constitutional changes and institutional crafting and re-crafting. Still, most changes framed as compliance with EU conditions have proved squeaky and reversible.
The resulting compliance is more often that not confined to the formal and verbal level, but it falls short of the threshold of substantial and sustainable reform, which the revised criterion of RoL consists of. Frequently, pragmatist elites across the region pursue required institutional changes, but also use various illicit strategies to undermine the very rules they have revised and committed to during the policy making process. At times, the revised institutions are even stretched to serve as a window of opportunities to take political control over the new institutions.
All cases from the Balkans show active political resistance to functioning RoL even when new EU requirements are formally incorporated in national legislation. In this context, the new methodology proposes a more strict set of tools to monitor the reforms.
It also suggests better use of the annual assessment of candidate countries by the Commission, better communication to member states on the accession process and more transparency in negotiations. It says, among others, that ‘…firm, merit-based prospect of full EU membership for the Western Balkans is in the Union’s very own political, security and economic interest.
In times of increasing global challenges and divisions, it remains more than ever a geostrategic investment in a stable, strong and united Europe.’
Moreover the document stresses ‘…negotiations on the fundamentals will be opened first and closed last and progress on these will determine the overall pace of negotiations.’ Thus, EU has redesigned its ‘carrots’, as ‘…accelerated integration and “phasing-in” to individual EU policies, the EU market and EU programmes’ and increasing funding and investment ‘…through a performance-based and reform-oriented Instrument for Pre-accession support and closer cooperation with IFIs to leverage support’.
Nevertheless, we think that the critical issue here for the EU is finding the right balance between positive and negative incentives looking back in the last decade’s track record in the region.
Adding more Politicisation
Another trend, which capitalizes on the findings of superficial reform across the region and the need among member countries to check on the effectiveness of enlargement, is adding ‘political steer’ to the process. As the EU Enlargement Commissioner explained ‘it is time to put the political nature of the process front and center and ensure stronger steering and high-level engagement from the Member States.’ And added that
“The stronger political steer would be best served if we have, at all political levels, more constant dialogue with the region, but also if we have more political reflection on the achievements of these countries”.
Such ‘steer’ that has been traditionally limited to high level political and policy dialogue, would drip down to ‘all bodies under the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) [that need] focus much more on the key political issues and reforms, while Inter-Governmental Conferences will provide stronger political steering for the negotiations’.
The Commission also aims to bring the political nature of the process to the forefront through regular EU-Western Balkans summits and intensified ministerial contacts. Importantly, ‘Member States will be invited to contribute more systematically to the accession process…[they] will also have the opportunity to review and monitor overall progress more regularly.’
This way, the mechanisms that underpin enlargement conditionality especially monitoring and assessing processes, but also EU decision making process would become more politically sensitive. In a nutshell, this implies a shift away from the Commission as the major and often the decisive actor of enlargement to a diversification of the forums and actors involved in targeting and assessing reforms at stake.
It was predictable that this increased politicisation would have repercussions for the entire process of enlargement.
On the one hand, involvement of various political actors, institutions and forums of dialogue can help to fortify the monitoring process and double check the delivery of reform. It can also ensure that member countries, which are now more closely involved in monitoring of reforms, will ensure a meritocratic process – those countries that deliver will be rewarded accordingly.
On the other hand, involvement of more political players can add political uncertainty to the process and/or raise the number of veto players.
Quite often, during the Balkan enlargement, specific member countries’ contingent interests more than the record of reform have proven decisive on the ultimate pace of accession. This was already put into practice in the last year’s refusal by Bulgaria to accept opening negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. But why is this problematic for some countries in the Western Balkans more than for others?
Expert views: How will this new EU methodology affect Kosovo’s EU path?
We must underline that as Kosovo is still a potential candidate the new methodology might influence it only when it will become a candidate country.
But one may clearly observe that in the ‘special’ context of Kosovo, both the opportunity for better assessment of ongoing reform and the challenge of contingent political interests blocking the process are not at all new, as they have already shown in various occasions.
During the visa liberalisation process, for example, key member countries including France and Netherlands, have attempted to checker Commission’s evaluation of progress, particularly in the area of RoL.
In 2019, for example, France didn’t fully buy into the Commission’s reporting of Kosovo compliance with the visa roadmap, instead arguing that reported progress on corruption was not enough. Netherlands, too, has in various occasions doubted Commission’s reporting on fulfilment of the visa Roadmap from Kosovo and made it clear that Dutch authorities are not happy with country’s record against corruption.
The challenge is that whereas the Commission’s set roadmap identifies specific issues that Kosovo needs to comply with, member countries raise general issues of progress which are difficult to pinpoint and thus fulfil. Even more than better monitoring, this politicisation adds risk making conditionality a ‘jungle of unspecified criteria’, difficult to be credibly assessed.
The experts and analysts we talked to have contrasting views on this topic. Kosovo’s unsolved bilateral disputes were pointed out as the most troublesome aspects that would favour politicisation of enlargement talks for the future.
Despite these fears, some experts saw the increasing role of member states and the Council in the process as a positive evolution, as it implies better inclusion of EU citizens’ perceptions and more scrutiny over the ways the Commission handles the assessment of reforms and all related decisions on enlargement: ‘This way, we have an extra check on what the Commission does to stimulate reforms in the Balkans and with what results.’
From this perspective, in the context of the revised methodology, it will be very challenging for leaders in the region and in the Kosovo particularly to ‘trick’ all watching individual member state, so they will be hopefully forced to get out of their ‘business as usual’ comfort zone.
Still, most experts appear worried that the new ‘meritocratic approach’ and especially the phenomena of politicisation advanced by the Commission in the new enlargement package will end up empowering both EU member states and Balkan leaders to avoid responsibility and commitment.
This might visibly deteriorate the current status of reforms. Still, most experts appear worried that the ‘meritocratic approach’ and especially the phenomena of politicisation will end up empowering both EU member states and Balkan leaders to avoid responsibility and commitment.
Thus, experts warn that more pressure from member states might ‘discourage further commitments for reforms in the Balkans, but especially in Kosovo this would affect the Commission’s work and jeopardise the system of benchmarks’. In return, this would certainly fuel discontent and lack of credibility to EU among sections of Kosovar society, especially in the context of the ‘paralysis’ of the normalisation process with Serbia.
Most experts we consulted with share a persistent fear that recent politicisation of the Council would backlash in growing EU scepticism, unwillingness to conduct reforms and more zero sum game in Kosovar politics. As one expert put it: ‘Currently the 5 EU non-recognisers are the least out of all other problems that Kosovo has.’
One expert stressed the fact that in the second part of 2020 there was too much attention given to discussions on the future of the Belgrade-Prishtina dialogue under the US external steering and very little attention to more important aspects on EU’s agenda in Kosovo, such as the political control of the judiciary or the need for a proper prosecution of corruption involving high-level public officials.
Specifically, the other goal to allow member countries more space in the process of enlargement proved instrumental for rebellious member states to veto enlargement, and has thus backfired on EU’s aim of credibility. The case of Bulgaria’s veto on North Macedonia sent such signals. Kosovo’s contested statehood amd its tensioned relations with neiboring countries pose the risk of increased politicisation
All in all, we conclude that the challenges of politicisation out-weight opportunities of rigorous monitoring and this tension will limit the efficiency of the new methodology in the case of Kosovo.
Whether EU will able to reconcile the two conflicting tendencies remains to be seen in the years to come.
If not handled properly, these tendencies are expected to have worrying repercussions in the case of Kosovo. Within the new methodology logic, there will be more space for obstruction and inflexibility towards decisions on Kosovo’s EU path, from all the five non-recognisers and other EU member states alike.
This article is a part of the research scheme ‘Building Knowledge About Kosovo 4- Alumni Project’ financed by the Pristina-based Kosovo Foundation for Open Society. Arolda Elbasani is a visiting scholar at the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies, NYU. Miruna Butnaru-Troncotă is director of Center for European Studies and Lecturer at the National University of Political Sciences and Public Administration (SNSPA) in Bucharest, Romania.