Reforming from the Bench - Marking Offside [Comparative Analysis]
The Think for Europe Network (TEN) has published the comparative analysis on the effectiveness of EC benchmarks to the Western Balkans, together with seperate country analyses and a policy brief.
See our previous research on the topic: The Western Balkans’ bumpy quest for EU integration: 2016 Comparative overview.
Introduction to the comparative analysis: Reforming from the bench - Marking offside
Benchmarks represent a set of requirements for accession negotiations for chapters of the acquis – opening and closing benchmarks (and interim benchmarks for Chapter 23 Judiciary and Fundamental rights and Chapter 24 Justice, Freedom and Security). The aim of such approach is at one side, to aid the candidate countries by making the requirements more concrete and on the other side to facilitate the process of assessment of progress achieved and thus navigate and give directions to the accession process. Moreover, benchmarks have been introduced for the countries that are yet to open accession negotiations without actually enjoying the benefits of negotiations.
The purpose of this analysis is to highlight and compare the key developments in relation to the selected benchmarks in the six countries, whereas an in depth discussion of the benchmarks in the separate countries is to be found in the national studies. The main issue in focus is how effective the benchmarks are – exploring the degree to which the objectives are achieved and the extent to which targeted problems are solved.
Most of the benchmarks analysed are not fully developed, lack specificity, focus and do not capture the substance of change thus are subject to free interpretation. In cases of countries in accession dynamics (such as Serbia and Montenegro) the EU tends to be more specific in non-papers on the state of play in Chapters 23 and 24 while other countries, which are not in the mode of “accession dynamics” (six-month reporting on benchmarks), the implementation of the benchmarks can be procrastinated without any major effect on the progress in the accession process. When comparing the countries at different points of their accession, we have found that the EC tends to provide more detailed and demanding requirements during accession negotiations. Still, the benchmarks are in some cases vaguely formulated and remain ineffective, largely due to the increasing scope of various types of measurements, the lack of elaboration and strategic target setting. This in return does not exclude from responsibility the countries which show no political will to genuinely address the deterioration of democratic norms.
The lack of concrete EU models in most of the analysed benchmarks enables “alibi” for governments to choose “their best” fitted model within the margins of reforms. However, the implementation of reforms does not mean undertaking legislative adaptations for purposes of ticking boxes. The EU does not have a proactive attitude to monitor the achievement of these benchmarks and signal in time that a model that does not comply with their guidelines cannot be selected. In return this leads only to change in form and not in substance.
Yet, we note the risk of over-specification of the benchmarks in terms of expecting and accepting “ready-made”, further contributes to the erosion of domestic capacity to conceptualise and implement reform. There are concerns that the approach is too institutional in its focus, and that “one model fits all” approach might ignore the significant variations amongst the Western Balkans. Thus, a more “custom-made” approach would be suitable for the benchmarks also in line with the fact that the EU does not have uniform rules in this area.
In terms of the incentives at work, our research shows that the countries are more likely to comply with EU legislation and policies if offered intermediate ‘rewards’ for the country in specific areas, like the example of visa liberalization in the case of compliance with the conditions in the justice and home affairs sector. The requirements stemming from the Visa Liberalization Roadmap have been more specific compared to other recommendations deriving from country reports. Given that, they were effective and easy to monitor. There is clearly a potential for the EU to use direct political conditionality against the government. Hence, it is essential for EU to maintain pressure on key issues and set a clear agenda for action for governments to comply.
In this context, civil society can play a pivotal role in this endeavour, as it has potential to capture the political context on the ground and extract the main concerns of citizens related to democratic standards as opposed to the technicised EU benchmarking system and reporting mechanism.
Overall, our findings show there is a gap between the high expectations from the benchmarking mechanism to encourage EU-related reform, and the actual results. While EU conditionality is highly important in prompting reforms, significant transformative effects are currently missing. The results present a work in progress with initial results achieved and work remaining to be done. The problems, although recognised by the EU are not being verbalised in the (publicly available) country reports in a satisfactory manner and do not necessarily reflect the gravity of the actual situation. In addition, the EU benchmarking has not been sufficiently strong, effective, and constructive to respond to the severity of circumstances. Other priorities on the EU’s agenda (ex. such as the political crisis in Macedonia, the Belgrade – Pristina dialogue, the judicial reform in Albania) have necessitated collaboration between the EU and the governments and in turn have took away the focus from more severe violations. The reluctance to use the stick, mainly due to security concerns and party alliances solidarity compromised the conditionality policy – and implicitly the benchmarking system.
For more, see the comparative analysis: Reforming from the Bench, Marking Offside - (In)effectiveness of the EU Benchmarking Mechanism in the Western Balkans
Also, see the policy brief: [Policy Brief] The EU benchmarking mechanism in the Western Balkans: Achieving the marks or missing the point?
This analysis is based on the contributions and separate country analyses made by project partners produced within the BENCHER project, financed by the European Fund for the Balkans, with the aim to study the effectiveness of the EU’s benchmarking system on selected policy issues within the Chapters 23 and 24 focusing on the cases of the WB6.
The analyses represent a first major attempt to critically evaluate the degree to which the objectives are achieved and the extent to which targeted problems are solved in order to further advance in the EU accession process. You can find the individual country reports below.