European Western Balkans

How to implement gradual accession to the EU: Single Market, staged accession or something else?

Leaders at the Athens Summit, 21 August 2023; Photo: Prime Minister of the Hellenic Republic

Calls to accelerate the accession of the candidate countries to the European Union have intensified since the start of the war in Ukraine. The latest initiative was made by Charles Michel last week in Bled, Slovenia, where he proposed that both the EU and the candidates should be ready for enlargement by 2030. In his speech, however, there was another element that started to gain attention even before last year’s Russian invasion – the gradual, progressive accession of the candidate countries to the EU.

“The Commission’s enlargement package — expected in October — is an opportunity to outline the concrete details of this progressive integration. This could take place in different areas — the Single Market, for example”, Michel said in his speech.

Earlier this year, in Bratislava, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen also mentioned this possibility as a part of the Commission’s new growth plan for the Western Balkans.

“…Countries that are already on a promising EU path should also benefit from our Single Market. For example, the Western Balkans could join our Digital Single Market in areas such as e-commerce or cybersecurity. We could facilitate our trade in goods and payments. I want our Single Market to be a driver of change, not only for countries that have already joined the family but also for those that are still on their way”, von der Leyen said.

It is now widely expected that some form of this proposal will be implemented before the formal accession, whenever it takes place. In an opinion piece published on 3 September, for example, Foreign Minister of North Macedonia Bujar Osmani wrote that “Integration Before Membership” isn’t merely an alternative, but a necessity.

The idea is not new – it was also included in the 2020 revised accession methodology of the European Commission, best known for its introduction of six clusters instead of individual negotiating chapters.

President of the European Council Charles Michel at Bled Strategic Forum 2023; Photo: X, Charles Michel

Even before, over the last 15 years, there has been an increasing sectoral integration between the Western Balkans and the EU, reminds Matteo Bonomi, senior fellow at the Italian Istituto Affari Internazionali.  Western Balkan countries, for example, have been in the process of integration into the EU’s energy and transport policies through their membership in the Energy Community (founded in 2006) and Transport Community (founded in 2017).

“Moreover, this has gone hand in hand with a deterioration of good governance and democratic standards in the WB region. Still, for years this status quo in the WB region was good enough for the EU. However, today, the war in Ukraine has changed this assessment”, Bonomi says.

In its June 2022 conclusions, the European Council invited the Commission, the High Representative and the Council “to further advance the gradual integration between the European Union and the region (of the Western Balkans) already during the enlargement process”. Since then, the Union has not made formal steps in this direction. The next opportunity, as Charles Michel mentioned, will be the next enlargement package in October.

In the meantime, however, civil society has outlined several ideas on how to implement a gradual accession of the Western Balkans. One of the most prominent proposals in the public has become the idea about the membership in the European Single Market before full EU membership. According to our interlocutors, inclusion into the elements of the Single Market would be beneficial; however, they warn that it must not become an objective that would replace the membership. Another model which, instead of inclusion of candidates in specific policy areas, proposes gradually increasing their participation in the EU institutions across the board has also received attention in recent years.

Two-stage accession: First Single Market, then full membership

One of the most prominent advocates for the Single Market as an intermediary step before full EU membership has been the Berlin-based European Stability Initiative (ESI). After Ukraine and Moldova became candidate countries, this think tank proposed that, to revive the EU accession process, the EU should offer membership in the Single Market, as a credible and reachable interim goal to all candidates, without giving up on the full EU membership as the ultimate goal.

“All candidate countries that meet the criteria to join the EU, including respect for human rights and the rule of law, should gain full access to the European Single Market and the four freedoms – the free movement of goods, people, services and capital. Citizens and businesses would then enjoy the same rights as those from EU members or Norway and Iceland enjoy today”, the proposal reads.

According to the ESI, this step would not complicate the EU decision-making nor would make the Union dysfunctional, which is one of the main concerns of the current enlargement sceptics. On the other hand, it would provide an attractive new goal for the elites of the candidate countries, which would move them closer to the EU.

This proposal was active even before the war in Ukraine. In 2021, Gerald Knaus, ESI Chairman, wrote that the goal should be for the Western Balkans to join the Single Market by 2030 – the same year Charles Michel now regards as a desirable target for conventional enlargement.

“A realistic prospect of enjoying the four freedoms… within a few years would mobilize all corners of society and usher in a new economic dynamism”, Knaus wrote two years ago.

The idea has since received some political backing in Germany. Opposition parliamentary groups of CDU and CSU in June 2022 tabled a motion in Bundestag which included the offer of membership in the Single Market. It was ultimately rejected by the parliament, with all other parliamentary groups voting against it in June 2023. Nevertheless, this form of two-staged accession to the EU has persisted in the public over the summer, with media outlets in Germany and the Western Balkans, including Serbia and North Macedonia, writing about the topic.

Bundestag; Photo: pixabay

Milica Delević, Director of Governance and Political Affairs at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, says for European Western Balkans that every change that leads to earlier reaping of benefits, which includes participation in various aspects of the Single Market, seems to her as a good way to incentivize and support reforms in the candidate countries.

“It is important, however, that the Single Market does not become an ‘intermediate’ step or a goal which further postpones the membership. The final goal is the possibility to better reward the progress of reforms and make the enlargement more tangible for the citizens, and not for the process to become an endless enlargement without becoming a member”, Delević says.

The proponents of the Single Market membership have not argued for it as an alternative to joining the EU or something that would postpone the enlargement process. However, the concern that this would happen is still there. Pierre Mirel, retired director at the European Commission who oversaw the enlargement to the Central and Eastern European countries in the early 2000s, emphasises that joining the EU Single Market, or key elements of it, should only be the first step of a series of steps leading to full membership. He says that he is, therefore, opposed to the European Stability Initiative proposal that, according to him, makes this step an objective by itself.

Mirel says that he does not believe that the current method of the accession process will work and that he has been in favour of a staged accession since 2018, with a major increase in pre-accession funding, in his view, being essential for the success of the process.

A more holistic approach

A prominent proposal that envisages the increase of pre-accession funding that Mirel mentions, together with a gradual participation in the institutions of the European Union, was first developed in 2021 by the European Policy Centre in Belgrade and the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels. According to this idea, as the countries become more prepared for EU membership, they should gradually gain increasing participation rights in EU bodies and institutions, such as the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament. They would, of course, only gain voting rights once they become a Member State.

This model differs from the Single Market membership proposal because it does not include integration into specific policy areas, such as four freedoms, but rather a gradual increase in participation in the work of the EU institutions across all policy areas. A country would only be able to advance to the next stage when it achieves progress across all negotiating clusters, not just the ones related to the Single Market. The model introduced by CEP and CEPS, therefore, argues for a “horizontal” rather than “sectoral” approach to gradual integration, with the Single Market being in the latter category.

EU-Western Balkans Summit in Tirana, December 2022; Photo: European Union

“Overall, the sectoral approach to gradual integration is politically attractive and can be a useful complement to accompany the formal enlargement process. But it lacks predictability and focuses on looser cooperation”, says Steven Blockmans, Director of Research at CEPS and one of the co-authors of the proposal.

At the same time, he adds that substantive policy participation might require negotiation and ratification of separate international treaties (modelled, for example, after the Energy Community), which creates the risk of diverting political attention and administrative capacities on both the candidates’ and the Commission’s side from the main task of preparing and conducting EU accession negotiations.

Just like other interlocutors, Blockmans also warns that the advocacy for gradual or sectoral integration should not be used as an alternative or compensation for a lack of progress in the formal accession process.

“The EU needs to use the momentum carefully to ensure that candidates go through a merit-based and predictable process, which will guarantee more reforms are rewarded with more benefits, while stagnation and backsliding are met with appropriate measures and reversibility in the integration process,” says Blockmans, underlying that the Staged Accession Model applies this logic.

Spurred by the geopolitical necessity of maintaining its influence in the region, the European Union currently seems much readier to implement some form of gradual accession of the candidate countries than it was when these proposals were first developed. However, what will be the exact way forward is a question that will have to wait at least until October, and probably even longer.

“Which will be the concrete path that will be offered to the Western Balkans will largely depend again on developments outside the region, in particular on how the EU and Ukraine will square the circle of their future relations”, Matteo Bonomi concludes.

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