Revising the enlargement methodology – a perspective from a long standing candidate

Author: Dr. Simonida Kacarska

The last quarter of 2019 has definitely been a peculiar period of the EU accession saga. The deadlock of the October 2019 Council followed by the French non-paper for reforming the EU accession process prompted a much-needed debate on the possible ways forward in view of revising the enlargement methodology. The discussions between the member states so far have uncovered opposing views, ranging from calls for a quick start of the accession negotiations to questioning the membership perspective of the region. The recently established European Commission as the body vested with this task is expected to come up with a proposal on the way forward in a largely unrealistic time frame, i.e. by early 2020. Needless to say, the conditions for this exercise are far from ideal ranging from low trust between the region and the EU member states, as well as among EU member states on the one hand, and the European Commission on the other.

The political wrangling among the EU member states and institutions has created much noise, but not much substance so far. At the same time, not much attention has been devoted to the views and needs of the candidate countries as recipients of EU conditionality. This blog presents some of the key points of importance from the perspective of the candidate countries, especially North Macedonia as the most experienced candidate for EU accession in the region and a case in which the revised methodology is most likely to be applicable. It focuses on three elements: maintaining the logic of already established policy processes, ensuring clarity of conditions and their assessment, as well as overcoming the executive nature of the accession process.

First, any revisions or interventions to the enlargement methodology need to acknowledge that the accession negotiations for these countries are not a point zero of engagement with the EU, but many steps further. North Macedonia, for example, has a signed Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU in place for the last almost 19 years. The use of this fact in political discussions as an example of the time spent in the EU waiting room has led to undermining its policy implications for the candidate country. In view of the latter, the SAA puts forward an extensive legislative alignment agenda and contributes to the socialization of policymakers of the candidate country and the EU. The legislative alignment agenda prioritized the internal market, which is an often forgotten topic in recent years, especially by member states vocal on enlargement recently. At the same time, the implementation of this agreement has necessitated the setting up and operation of numerous bodies which have been operational and have contributed significantly to socializing its policymakers with the European institutions. Hence, the policy agenda put forward by the SAAs have been ingrained in the institutional systems of these countries with a goal of EU accession.  At the same time, the interaction between the candidates and EU institutions has also been one of preparing these countries to be future members of the Union. In view of this, the refinement of the methodology needs to upgrade these efforts and to avoid undermining long-established policy processes.

Second, while rule of law has dominated the discourse of accession, not much has been done as to dealing with the clarity of conditions, as well as a reliable manner of assessment in this respect, which are the primary needs of the candidate countries. The October 2019 cases of North Macedonia and Albania are a recent illustration of the problem since the assessment of the European Commission was clearly not endorsed by the member states. The dissonance of the assessments is foremost present in relation to the rule of law conditionality, as the policy areas with the least clarity of benchmarking. At the same time, it is the area in which countries traditionally vocal in relation to enlargement require more scrutiny and more engagement of the member states. While the engagement of the member states is always welcome and needed, a persisting lack of clarity of the conditions and their manner of assessment undermines the credibility of conditionality even further. Hence, the revisions of the methodology in parallel with strengthening the rule of law conditionality, need to at least contribute to clearing the fog in relation to standards and the acceptable assessors for this purpose. Recent moves on rule of law benchmarking in the EU will contribute to this objective in the long term, but for the immediate period, the Commission needs to follow up or reflect on its diagnosis already presented in the 2018 Communication on Credible Enlargement Perspective with the Western Balkans.

Third, current discussions on the revisions on the methodology do not deal with the executive centered nature of the accession process as one of the traditionally recognized plagues of accession. In the conditions of strong executives in the region, this approach in effect contributes to excluding a multitude of stakeholders of the accession process, such as Parliaments, the judiciary and civil society. These significant actors and societal change-makers are often seen as marginal to the nitty-gritty of enlargement and need to find their own place in partnership with their counterparts of the EU institutions and member states. For this purpose, however, the accession process will need to be transformed from a highly asymmetrical relationship to one of building partnerships with the stakeholders in future member states. To achieve this, the engagement with the candidate countries on the side of the EU institutions and member states will need to spread further than the respective EU enlargement departments and foreign policy desks to building horizontal relationships in various policy areas. Such an engagement would need to be intentional, long term and would also contribute significantly to building trust and support for the accession process in both EU member states and candidates.

The three points above present only some of the key issues that are important to the candidate countries in view of the new approach for managing the accession process. These points unfortunately with the exception of the nominal importance of rule of law do not figure prominently in recent proposals coming from the member states on this topic. This discordance as to the needs and way forward highlights the need to engage in a dialogue between the EU institutions, member states, but also the Western Balkan countries as the recipients of accession conditionality.  Such a dialogue is much needed, and even belated in order for the trust in the process to be restored and for conditionality to be seen as credible from both sides of the accession story.

This blog post summarises the author’s intervention at the conference: BRINGING THE BALKANS BACK TO THE EU FORE held in Belgrade on 13 December 2019.

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