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The limits of gradual sectoral integration between the EU and the candidate countries

By Steven Blockmans and Michael Emerson

The European Council in June 2022 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 itself in a reversible and merit-based manner.’ Several non-papers by EU Member States and think tanks have repeated similar ideas. The most significant announcement in this regard came in May 2023 from Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen who proposed a four-pillar growth plan for the Western Balkans which included increasing pre-accession funds.

Most of these proposals have gone in the direction of more differentiated, sectoral integration prior to full accession. Some have even claimed that access should be granted to the entire EU single market once the ‘fundamentals’ of respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law have been adhered to by candidates. While this sounds like an attractive proposition, bold and straightforward, in reality it is rather facile since single market access can only be assured after painstaking adoption and implementation of the mass of relevant acquis that covers as much as half of the 30 or so chapters of the accession process.

Candidate countries are already engaged in sectoral integration, albeit according to an ad hoc approach, in the Energy Community, Transport Community and European Common Aviation Area. The Common Regional Market under the Berlin Process is also based on EU rules and closer association to the EU single market to help the Western Balkans in the accession process. What’s more, the EU has opened its specialised agencies and several EU programmes to candidate country participation, on an individual basis, and often with financial support through the instrument for pre-accession.

The problem is that there is little predictability instilled in such initiatives, which thus create little real incentive for the individual candidate states to press on with major institutional reforms, like those needed in the justice sector.

Also, the sectoral initiatives are usually addressed collectively to the Western Balkan region, without making any distinction based on the countries’ individual reform commitment and progress towards fulfilling formal membership criteria. The Commission has even asked individual candidates to propose policies, agencies and programmes in which they see opportunities for policy phasing-in, without creating a methodology that would ensure coherence in this process. Perhaps most importantly, the sectoral approach to gradual integration foresees no systematic application of the principle of conditionality in relation to the ‘fundamentals first’ method of the enlargement process, which highlights that the sectoral approach can hardly be touted as enhancing accession across the board in a coordinated fashion.

With regard to gradual integration into the EU single market, this forms an essential element of each Stabilisation and Association Agreement which provides for ‘seamless access to the internal market’ for goods originating from a Western Balkan country when it ‘achieves the equivalent level of competence through the enforcement of national rules aligned with the Union acquis applicable to the product’. In the case of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia the agreements are much more explicit, with the listing of hundreds of directives and regulations that should be complied with under given time scales.

To be sure, the sectoral approach to gradual integration is politically attractive and can be helpful in speeding up the formal membership negotiation process. However, it does not of itself advance the formal accession process in legal terms. It focuses on looser cooperation and lacks predictability overall.

At the same time, substantive policy participation that exceeds the scope of association agreements might require negotiation and ratification of separate international treaties (bilateral or modelled, for example, after the plurilateral 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. In particular, the advocacy for gradual sectoral integration should not be used as an alternative or compensation for a lack of progress in the formal accession process.

The freshly revised and upgraded Template 2.0 for Staged Accession to the EU follows the logic of horizontal progression, rather than a vertical (i.e. sectoral policy) approach. This means that candidates must increase their performance across the whole set of clusters, including respect for democracy and rule of law, to progress through well-defined and benchmarked stages in order to obtain access to bigger envelopes of financial support and greater institutional participation in the EU. These benefits act as incentives to press on with the most difficult fundamental reforms.

The EU needs to assure momentum for candidates to go through a merit-based and predictable process, which will guarantee that more reforms are rewarded with more benefits, while stagnation and backsliding are met with appropriate measures and reversibility in the integration process. The Staged Accession Model applies that logic in a holistic, systematic and predictable fashion which proposals for gradual sectoral integration do not.

Steven Blockmans is Director of Research and Michael Emerson is Senior Associate Research Fellow at CEPS (Brussels). The Staged Accession Model is a co-production by CEP (Belgrade) and CEPS, in partnership with think tanks from the Think for Europe Network (TEN). The Template 2.0 is based on six country reports and more than half a dozen of issue papers which have been discussed with various stakeholders, most notably EU and national politicians and officials in member states and candidate countries. The final report is accessible at https://www.ceps.eu/ceps-publications/template-2-0-for-staged-accession-to-the-eu/  

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