The European Commission’s proposal to reform the accession process for the Western Balkans is, first of all, an appeal to French President Macron, says Bodo Weber.
On February 5, the new European Commission presented its proposal to reform the enlargement policy, more precisely the methodology of the accession negotiations for the countries of the Western Balkans. The “reform” had become necessary due to the total blockade of the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania by French President Emanuel Macron at the Brussels summit last October. If you trust statements by French government officials, cautious optimism is appropriate that Paris will clear the way for the two Balkan countries in the spring.
The paper surprisingly contains a lot of positive things that could lead to a serious revival of enlargement policy: the Commission proposal contains the EU’s strongest, politically motivated commitment to enlargement in the Western Balkans for many years. It recognizes for the first time that the EU’s enlargement policy provides a strong means of promoting democracy. It recognizes reform conditionality as a central means of this policy. For the first time, the possibility of sanctioning reform reforms is explicitly pointed out.
The Commission proposes to introduce the so-called “reverse qualified majority voting” on sanctions. This means that a majority of member states are needed to prevent sanctions – something new in the enlargement policy, which has so far been based on unanimity. Finally, the Commission is hinting for the first time that the EU communicates more directly with the citizens of the Western Balkans – the real supporters of EU integration. At the same time, it obliges the government to communicate the strategic goal of EU membership to its citizens. It makes this communication a condition in the expansion process.
However, we should warn against too much euphoria about the Commission’s proposal and its long-term effects. Ultimately, the paper is a forced reaction to a non-existent or incorrectly tackled problem: Macron’s total blockade of enlargement was an act of irresponsibility in terms of European policy. Irresponsible was the point in time when a reform of the enlargement policy was demanded – after Macron’s two postponements the decision on North Macedonia and Albania.
The European Parliament supports the accession of the Western Balkans to the EU
On the other hand, in its basic demand – first internal reform of the EU, and only then continued enlargement. Finally, irresponsible was Macron’s factually false criticism of the previous enlargement policy, a consequence of the traditional French ignorance of the enlargement policy towards the Western Balkans region, from which Paris had politically withdrawn for over a decade. An ignorance that was also based on Macron’s dangerous support for a territorial exchange agreement in the Brussels negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo 2018/19. In a hasty non-paper written in November, the French administration tried to subsequently fill Macron’s unilateral intervention in enlargement policy with political content – largely to no avail.
More democracy than economic reform
The Commission’s proposal now is a clear attempt to partially reverse some of the most problematic elements of French non-paper, and to partially mitigate it, to avert damage to the EU in the Western Balkans while at the same time protecting Macron’s face. The focus on economic reforms in the Paris proposal was replaced by the focus on democracy – a term that was completely lacking in the non-paper. The proposed thematic summary of the accession negotiation chapters should no longer be based on a phased opening of chapter groups.
This would have meant a fundamental restructuring of the accession process. The introduction of additional economic incentives has been significantly weakened. Experience has shown that additional money for governments in the Western Balkans is an unsuitable means. In the countries of the region, the economy has largely remained under the control of the party-state elites. Short-term, corrupt power interests over economic needs dominate. What has remained is that neither the French non-paper nor the Commission proposal is based on an analysis of the causes of the large ineffectiveness of the enlargement policy to date.
Does Macron give up the blockade of accession?
The Commission paper inevitably targets the core problem of the Union’s enlargement policy in the Western Balkans. This is not in the existing methodology of the accession process or the instruments. His solution cannot, therefore, be found in a change of methods. Rather, in the absence of political will from the EU, the Brussels institutions and the member states, to make consistent use of these instruments. Despite all ignorance, Macron has named this political problem but has not tackled it.
The new paper and EU approach will likely allow Macron to lift its blockade from opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. The crucial question, however, is whether the Commission paper can initiate a turnaround in enlargement policy. Above all, the underlying, much more fundamental conflict – especially between France and Germany – over the future of the EU remains unsolved. The fundamental questions remain unanswered: What kind of EU do we want – a political union or an economic community? And where does Europe (EU) end?
Bodo Weber is a senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council (DPC), a transatlantic think tank based in Berlin.