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European Western Balkans
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What is the EU perspective of North Macedonia and Albania a year after opening negotiations?

Petr Fiala, Dimitar Kovačevski, Edi Rama and Ursula von der Leyen; Photo: Twitter / @DKovachevski

In July 2022 North Macedonia and Albania finally held their first intergovernmental conferences with the European Union. A year or so later, the technical part of the negotiations, which at this point mostly includes the process of the so-called screening, has moved forward. The political environment, however, remains uncertain and largely unchanged.

On 18 August, the parliament of North Macedonia will start the discussions on constitutional changes to include Bulgarian people in the country’s constitution, a part of the deal brokered by France last year to lift the Bulgarian veto on adopting negotiating frameworks with North Macedonia and, by extension, Albania. The outcome of the process remains uncertain as the largest opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, is still opposed to the changes, which require a two-thirds majority support.

The general appetite for accepting new members in the near future also appears not to have grown significantly in the EU, even after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which put the strategic rationale for enlargement front and center. Some are calling for the next Commission, which will be elected in 2024, to demonstrate its seriousness over this issue.

So, what did the intergovernmental conferences with the EU last year mean for North Macedonia and Albania? They have enabled a complicated technical process of accession negotiations to begin. Most of the so-called screening procedure has already been carried out, which means that Skopje and Tirana will finish this part of the process in roughly the same amount of time as Podgorica and Belgrade did. This is a necessary step for the EU to take the negotiations to the next step – laying out the conditions for opening of the negotiating clusters.

Screening process completed for four out of six clusters

Since the change of the enlargement methodology in 2020, the 33 negotiating chapters are now grouped into six clusters. Countries previously used to open negotiations on individual chapters, each of them containing all EU legislation for a certain policy area with which a candidate country needs to harmonize. Now, a country opens a cluster of chapters instead of individual chapters, which, in theory, should speed the process up.

Before opening the clusters, the EU undertakes a screening procedure to determine the current level of alignment between a candidate country and the EU legislation. This, too, was once done on the level of chapters, while now it is done on the level of clusters.

As of 17 July 2023, North Macedonia and Albania have finalized screening in the first four clusters. On that day, they kicked off the screening for Cluster 5: Resources, Agriculture and Cohesion.

In a press conference held in July 2022, Deputy Prime Minister of North Macedonia for European Affairs Bojan Maricikj announced that the screening process would be over by November 2023. The current pace is a bit slower than what was originally envisaged – screening of the Cluster 5 was then planned for June, while it started in July – but it currently seems that the procedure for North Macedonia and Albania will indeed wrap up in less than a year and a half.

In comparison, Montenegro, which opened its accession talks in June 2012, finished the screening process by June 2013, in exactly one year. Serbia, which opened accession talks in January 2014, finished the screening process in March 2015; since it started already in 2013, it took about a year and a half. North Macedonia and Albania, therefore, are advancing with a similar pace.

What is the next step?

According to the negotiating frameworks adopted by the Council, the screening process will result in European Commission’s reports which will propose opening benchmarks – criteria that North Macedonia and Albania need to fulfill in order to open specific clusters. The Council of the EU, in which EU governments are represented by their ministers, will make the decision on opening clusters and, down the road, on closing individual chapters.

As has been seen in the cases of Montenegro and Serbia, these decisions by the Council are highly political. Technical benchmarks for opening and closing chapters/clusters are only one element of the decisions. They are also affected by the political context, including the interests of the individual member states.

When all conditions – technical and political – are met, negotiations on the so-called “fundamentals’ cluster” – which contains the rule of law chapters and the criteria of functioning of democratic institutions – will be opened first. They will also be closed last.

Closing the screening meetings of Competitiveness and Inclusive Growth cluster with Albania and North Macedonia; Photo: EU

On 24 July 2023, European Commission released screening reports on the state of the “fundamentals’ cluster” in North Macedonia and Albania. Based on these reports, the Council will make the decisions on opening the cluster.

Before this, however, the countries will also have to adopt a roadmap for reform in the rule of law chapters, a roadmap for the functioning of democratic institutions and a roadmap for public administration reform. This is an element of the new enlargement methodology which sets out the general commitments of the country for reforms in the respective areas with a timetable and the key steps envisaged.

Can North Macedonia and Albania achieve a faster pace than Montenegro and Serbia?

The experience of Montenegro and Serbia has shown that it is far more complicated to close a negotiating chapter than to open it. To date, Montenegro has opened all of its negotiating chapters but closed only three. Serbia has opened 22 chapters but closed only two. Both countries have been negotiating for about a decade already.

Can North Macedonia and Albania achieve a faster pace? The former country, at least on paper, has a good chance of doing so. According to the latest European Commission annual reports, released in October 2022, North Macedonia has an almost equal level of preparation across 33 negotiating chapters as Montenegro and Serbia.

“The Macedonian accession process from a technical perspective in the last decade has unfortunately been overshadowed by the significance assigned to the bilateral disputes. Still, given the relatively high legislative alignment with the EU, the country has a good technical starting point in the accession negotiations, which needs to be matched by substantial focus on implementation”, says Simonida Kacarska, Director of the European Policy Institute in Skopje.

She adds that the element of implementation has been rather weak, and has been dependent on the political signalling from the EU and domestic leadership.

“In this context, it is rather difficult to see significant work on alignment progressing in the given circumstances of political instability and polarization”, Kacarska points out.

In terms of the level of preparation, Albania is somewhat behind the rest of the candidates with active negotiation processes, at least according to the European Commission reports. On the other hand, as Gentiola Madhi, Policy Analyst at OBC Transeuropa points out, the country has a strong pro-European vocation and there is little room for internal political disputes.

“The governing party has 75 members out of 140 in the Parliament and this majority contributes to the fast process of adoption of a considerable part of the pieces of legislation that should be aligned with the acquis. However, it is desirable to have on board also the opposition at this stage, possibly with a cross-party agreement on EU-related aspects, since we are talking about the future perspective of the country. It is on our political elite to set the speed of the negotiations on technical issues”, Madhi says for European Western Balkans.

The challenge of implementation of adopted legislation, however, exists in Albania as well, Madhi says.

“The Commission and the member states certainly will engage in monitoring the extent of implementation and it might be difficult to draw a clear-cut objective line between what is a satisfactory level and what’s not. The devil lies in the details and it stands on Albania’s government shoulders to make the most of this process, avoiding losing another train to Brussels”, she says.

Madhi assesses that the coming three to four years would be decisive for Albania’s negotiation speed since the justice reform has just started providing its first results.

The general impression, then, remains that the accession negotiations of North Macedonia and Albania, with a few tweaks introduced by the new methodology, are looking quite similar to those of Montenegro and Serbia. As has been the situation for years now, the pace of the process will mostly depend on political will – the domestic and the European.

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