The European Commission's plans for strengthening the accession process for the Western Balkans contain interesting solutions with great potential, but may also have some weaknesses.
On February 6, the European Commission announced a new approach to the accession process for the Western Balkans. Exactly on the same day, two years earlier, it disclosed a “new” strategy for the Western Balkans. If implemented right, it will be fully compatible with the collective goals of Central Europe.
The new approach:
- emphasises the responsibility of politicians involved in the enlargement process,
- improves the sense of partnership through the participation of representatives of candidate countries in important EU meetings,
- engages EU countries into the negotiation process, and
- mobilises institutions involved in the enlargement process for greater participation.
The communication on the accession process creates room for a new opening in March when the decision to start membership negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania will be raised again at the European Council.
In support of Angela Merkel’s promises, the EC is also planning to present before the Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb a comprehensive plan that will speed up the process of drawing the region’s countries into the EU.
The new concept can be seen as an attempt to introduce a new quality to relations with countries on the path to membership, strengthen the EU’s power of influence in the region, as well as an attempt to overcome recent failures in EU relations with the countries of the region.
We are talking here about both an effort to reboot EU enlargement and place the Western Balkans at its centre. This follows a period of being sidelined in the Berlin process (during the Juncker Commission), which is an intergovernmental cooperation initiative aimed at sustaining multilateral ties between the Western Balkans and selected EU member states.
Additionally, the EU needs to improve its credibility after it abstained from beginning negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania in last October.
Relations of the Western Balkans with the previous European Commission, presided by Jean-Claude Juncker, were neither unequivocal nor obvious. At the beginning of his term in office, Jucker declared that in his time there would be no enlargement, thus demotivating even the most ardent supporters of integration.
The vacuum in relations began to be exploited by Russia and China. When the Commission saw its error, at the beginning of 2018 it proposed a new strategy for the Western Balkans. Together with the Western Balkans summit in Sofia in May 2018, they tried to constitute a new opening in mutual relations.
The Prespa agreement settling the name of today’s North Macedonia was seen as a good example of an increase in the EU’s influence.
However, both the Sofia summit and the Greek-Macedonian agreement have exposed the weaknesses of the EU’s approach to the Balkans. The Western Balkans Summit in Sofia showed intra-EU friction over Kosovo’s independence.
In view of the problems related to Brexit, migration and alternative visions for the future of integration, the Berlin process remained the main axis of interaction between the EU countries concerned and the region.
The accumulation of these problems not strictly related to the Balkans has led to the practical discrediting of the EU’s position towards the Balkans, when, after French (but not only) opposition, the EU rejected the proposal to start membership negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania.
Given the ambiguous attitude of the Juncker Commission to the Western Balkans, its departure was a chance for a new beginning. Now, we have the opportunity to learn about its future shape.
Old strategy, new tactics
The essence of the EU’s new policy does not change, but unlike the Juncker commission, it clearly defines the extension to the Western Balkans as a priority for the Von der Leyen commission. It remains rooted in a conditionality policy based on a credible membership perspective and fundamental EU values (democracy, rule of law, fundamental rights).
The regulation of Belgrade-Pristina relations remains a strategic goal of the EC. At the same time, looking at the language and proposals for the new concept, it can be seen that a number of weaknesses in existing relations on both the EU side and the Balkan partners have been noticed in Brussels.
The EC’s proposals also aim to shift the burden of enlargement from the Berlin process to formal negotiations in the context of accession negotiations.
One of the main problems in the current EU relations with the Balkan authorities is the issue of credibility. In the weakening EU membership perspective, the Balkan authorities saw the possibility of justifying a lack of progress in the necessary reforms on the road to membership.
Leaders such as the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić are, on the one hand, portrayed by the EU as supporters of integration, and on the other hand, at home as defenders of national interests against a despotic EU.
In the new concept, representatives of national authorities are to be accountable for their activities by increasing the number of EU-Western Balkans summits and the intensity of ministerial meetings, as well as allowing representatives of candidate countries to participate in EU meetings as an observer.
Improving formal relations
In the Balkan countries, the expectations of EU-related reforms have risen to the rank of a mythical loss of self-determination. Moreover, national politicians do not shy away from using the EU as a justification for introducing socially disadvantageous reforms to shift social frustration to Brussels.
That is one of the reasons why the Commission wants to increase transparency in the negotiations by means of introducing clear pre-criteria, benchmarks and objectives to be achieved and a process to monitor them.
The Commission also proposes to move away from the negotiation of individual chapters (though they remain in existence) in favour of a problem-based approach that will speed up the negotiation process itself.
By refining the rewards for imminent reforms and outlining penalties for delaying or abandoning reforms, the new concept deprives national politicians of the ability to manipulate the negotiation process for internal benefit.
The EU’s emerging position
The French veto to start accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania in October last year was a blow that knocked down the EU’s credibility among all countries in the membership queue.
Realising that after another such blow, the EU’s enlargement policy in its current shape may be knocked out, the EC drew its conclusions.
By implementing the principle of reversibility, the EC wants to secure member states with the possibility of controlling the negotiation process. The ability to influence negotiations on the part of individual member states forces them to actively participate in the enlargement policy.
Thus, the Commission wants to prevent another member state from undermining its credibility. On the other hand, most likely, the increased involvement of all EU countries in the negotiation process will reduce the raison d’être of the Berlin process.
A blot on the landscape
The new concept of strengthening the accession process for the Western Balkans contains interesting solutions with great potential. However, it has not been insulated from certain weaknesses.
Apart from the fundamental issue of the existence of EU conditionality itself, it should be noted that the Commission was not able to restrain itself from putting its green governance priority in the concept.
Although in relations with the countries of the Western Balkans this is definitely a secondary issue, to make mention of it can only be a source of unnecessary ambiguity that can be used by domestic politicians, who are terrified of the economic costs associated with adapting to this EU priority.
The arguments regarding objectivity in the context of the rule of law and the democratic state should also be viewed with caution. It should be remembered that the accession process is at least as much a political as it is legal and economic. And where there is a bit of political discretion, it is difficult to talk about objectivity.
Central European approach
Regardless of these weaknesses and although modestly titled, the new concept is an attempt at a revolutionary change in the policy towards the Western Balkans, which the EU and the states badly need.
The new concept goes hand in hand with the increased involvement in the Western Balkans, realised by the Polish government.
Although the issue of reconciliation appears only once in the EU’s communication, its importance is tangible to the expectations of intensified regional cooperation. This is an area where the Polish experience of the last thirty years can serve as an example of good practice.
Given the willingness of the EU Commission to prepare a support program for the region, one can be tempted to incorporate and extend the infrastructure of the Three Seas initiative, building up the potential of the eastern part of the European bloc.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project.