European Western Balkans

CSF 2023: The 2030 target for enlargement will be a difficult, but not impossible task

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

The Civil Society and Think Tank Forum (CSF), as a part of the Berlin Process, is scheduled for 14 and 15 October in Tirana. The forum is structured around seven thematic working groups, each led by civil society organizations from the region. These working groups have actively engaged in a comprehensive consultation process, involving civil society and regional experts, to collaboratively formulate policy recommendations.

One of the seven Thematic Working Groups at the Civil Society Forum is tackling the Politics of Enlargement. According to the announcement of the CSF, this group seeks to understand the key factors shaping the enlargement process at present, the influence they could yield in accelerating or blocking the process and the key policy measures to be undertaken to support and​ spearhead enlargement on the ​short-, mid- and long-term.​

Ioannis Armakolas, Senior Research Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, the lead organisation for this group, says that, while the year 2030 as a target date has been making the news lately, many EU member states remain “date-averse” when it comes to enlargement.

“I expect that there will be resistance to any temporal commitments. Still, it is important to understand what could be a good use of a target date. It cannot and should not be an “obligation” on the part of the EU. But it would be important as a strong political message and a serious signal to the Western Balkans that the EU is this time serious about integrating the region”, Armakolas says for European Western Balkans.

He points out that it is not only that the reforms in the Western Balkans have been frustrated, but also that the EU itself has failed to reward reforms in previous years, for example in North Macedonia, while at the same time it has also failed to penalize backsliding in democracy and reform in the Western Balkans.

“For reforms in the Western Balkans to be revitalized, the EU needs to signal that it has learned the lesson from past failures and that it is now serious about integrating the Western Balkans”, Armakolas stresses.

As for whether the particular date of 2030 is achievable for both the Western Balkans and the EU, he assesses that it will be a difficult, but not impossible task.

“Both sides will need to up their respective game. The EU will have to accelerate the discussions and decisions about some necessary internal institutional reforms as well as to tackle the major obstacle, which is the budgetary implications. And as far as the Western Balkans are concerned, I would say that the candidates without serious status and bilateral disputes, i.e. Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania, are better suited to carry out breakthroughs in reforms to be ready for accession by the end of the decade”, Armakolas says.

He concludes, however, that this will require a totally different political mindset and a determined and collective effort by elites and political forces in these countries, which is anything but guaranteed at the moment.

Among the recommendations for the decision-makers, the Thematic Working Group has urged the Council to explore the possibility of qualified majority voting on decisions regarding intermediary steps in the EU enlargement process. The Council should announce the start of an accelerated accession process for all candidate countries, which would only guarantee membership to those countries that fulfill the necessary criteria.

The European Commission, according to the Thematic Working Group, should prepare individual accession action plans in coordination with the candidate countries, modeled after Croatia’s and North Macedonia’s accession process in 2000s. The action plans should include individual country priorities under a specific timeframe, the European Commission should introduce intermediary milestones related to the individual action plans to put forward concrete incentives.

The Working Group also recommended that the Council should enable the Commission to make use of the existing mechanisms for immediate reporting and triggering of sanctions for violations or backsliding in the area of rule of law.

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