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What should EU candidates take away from Commission’s new document on pre-enlargement reforms?

Ursula von der Leyen's State of the Union Speech 2023; Photo: X / @vonderleyen

Last week, the European Commission published a new Communication on pre-enlargement reforms and policy reviews, contributing to the ongoing discussion on how to get ready for a larger Union. According to the document, this step kicks off the work on the in-depth policy reviews which will be carried out in early 2025.

“Enlargement is in the Union’s own strategic interest”, the document assesses. It adds, however, that its benefits can only materialize when both the EU and future Member States are well-prepared.

The Communication looks at the implications of a larger EU in four main areas – values, policies, budget and governance. It also contributes to the discussions about the roadmap for future work on enlargement and reforms, which is expected to be adopted by EU leaders this summer.

The Communication was published in the context of the renewed discussion on enlargement that started after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine and opening accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova, as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The question of whether there is more political will for EU enlargement in the foreseeable future has been posed with increased frequency ever since. The fact that Member States have initiated a reflection process on how to prepare the Union for a future enlargement is a strong signal, says Milena Mihajlović, Programme Director at the European Policy Centre in Belgrade.

“This shows that the long period of stagnation and lack of political prioritization of enlargement has ended and that the EU is serious about its preparations for the next enlargement rounds”, she says.

Mihajlović also points out that this Communication is the first official document to be released on the subject, which means that much will depend on the forthcoming actions by Member States leading to the adoption of the above-mentioned roadmap on reforms later this year.

“Overall, the entire process of policy reviews in light of enlargement can do much to change the overarching assumption which was established in the Western Balkan region in the past two decades – that the EU doesn’t really want us in its ranks, with possibly positive consequences for the political enthusiasm and pace of reforms”, Mihajlović says.

According to Pierre Mirel, former Director of the Directorate General for Enlargement at the European Commission, this document is a clear indication that enlargement will be high on the EU agenda.

“As we get close to the European elections, this Communication looks like an internal roadmap for the next Commission”, he says for European Western Balkans.

Policy reviews which should prepare the EU for future enlargement were announced by the President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen in her State of the Union speech in September 2023.

What does the document say about reforms?

The Communication focuses on four areas. It states that, in terms of values, the EU will need to reflect on how to further strengthen its tools to ensure the rule of law is upheld across the EU, beyond accession.

In the area focusing on policies, the document proposes ways how to further roll out gradual access to the Single Market before accession, which will be conditioned by reforms.

Meanwhile, in the area of budget, the document states that enlargement should be factored in the reflections leading to the next EU long-term budget, with the current one expiring in 2027. The future EU spending programmes should be developed with enlargement in mind and the Instruments for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) fine-tuned to better prepare for accession, the Communication states.

Presentation of the 2023 EU enlargement package; Photo: European Union

Finally, in the area of governance, the EU advocates that decision-making can be swiftly improved by using the full potential of the current Treaties. The Treaties already foresee ‘passerelle clauses’ that allowing for a shift from unanimity to qualified majority voting within the Council in key areas. Also, current Treaties allow for “integration at different speeds”, which should be part of the equation within a larger Union at 30+ Member States.

Milena Mihajlović assesses that the document rightly proposes that existing mechanisms should be used to support the gradual integration of candidate countries in various policy areas. But at the same time, she says, the Commission recognises that a budget of an enlarged Union will be an even greater challenge than the current one, which will prompt reforms of the biggest spending programmes, such as the Cohesion Policy or the Common Agricultural Policy.

“Overall, all policy reviews which the Commission lists in the document are expected to reflect the impact of enlargement, and will lead to certain reforms of those policies. I would characterize this document as a starter course on a much bigger menu of policy proposals related to the impact of enlargement that we can expect in the coming period”, Mihajlović says.

Assessing the document, Steven Blockmans, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies, says that the Commission, in anticipation of the in-depth policy reviews, wishes to exude a ‘can-do’ attitude and “paints a rosier picture” than what the reforms that will actually entail.

“See, for instance, the encouraging language about the need for a ‘stronger’ common agricultural policy, rather than caution about the prospect of painful reform of a policy which accounts for almost 40% of the EU’s budget. Ahead of the European parliamentary elections in the 27 member states, the Commission does not want to throw fuel on the fire ignited by farmers in countries like Poland who are being deluded by far-right populists into believing that they should direct their anger against the imports of Ukrainian agrifood products”, Blockmans points out.

In the same vein, he adds, the Commission’s “upbeat message” that enlargement can happen by using the full potential offered by the Treaties denies the fact that unanimity is required before Member States can resort to more efficient governance arrangements. This unanimity will be harder to obtain as new members are added to the Union.

“In short, Communication paints a rosier picture than the reform which will be needed to prepare the European Union for enlargement with the Western Balkan six and the Eastern trio, let alone Turkey. I suspect that, once the in-depth policy reviews are published, they’ll make for more sober reading”, Blockmans concludes.

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