To be sure, under the stewardship of the European Commission, the EU’s tools and methods for carrying out enlargement have been undergoing reforms since at least 2011, both in response to the ‘indigestion’ problems following the 2004/2007 waves of expansion and to the particularities of the region (especially legacies of war and state weakness). In time, the process has changed, and it is now more rigorous and complex than in any of the previous enlargement rounds.
Yet, as you correctly point out, the policy still struggles to reap successes. Moreover, the member states’ strong commitment to the region – on which you justly lay emphasis – has gradually given way to increasingly more assertive or ambiguous national positions on the prospective entry of new countries. The result is that the Balkans’ European perspective, at present, seems far more aspirational than actual.
The idea that a sovereign EU can disengage from its Balkan inner courtyard is fantasy. The interdependence between the Union and the region goes beyond geographic proximity, as underscored by all recent crises. The two sides share the same problems and interests – so your plea for closer ties between the EU and its Balkan allies is welcome. As the Union starts a new politico-institutional cycle and prepares a Conference on the Future of Europe, it makes sense to thrust enlargement into the spotlight – broken promises (to Skopje and Tirana) notwithstanding.
Your initiative could give this policy a much-needed jolt of energy. But the devil is in the details – which, for now, are lacking in your ‘non-paper’.
To mark a clear departure from past revisions, this vital conversation about enlargement should go far beyond restating the EU’s hard line on the dossier. The fundamental areas of reform, including a minefield of issues – like the rule of law, state capture, borders/statehood definition, or reconciliation – have become an undisputed part of the conditionality for the Balkans. ‘What’ is expected from the Balkan countries is already well-known; it is the ‘how’ that still trips us up.
Your idea of linking groups of stringent conditions to tangible rewards would pepper the strenuous reform path that the region must travel with more frequent incentives for the Balkan leaders to make steady progress. More generous EU support would also allow politicians in the region to show their citizens the concrete benefits of undertaking reforms. And deeper interaction between the Balkans and the EU would breed familiarity, increase mutual understanding, and make accession less intimidating on both sides.
But for all that to happen, the benefits provided at various stages should, in fact, be new and substantial. They should include much more than just access to EU programmes – already granted in most cases. The EU should empower the Balkan countries through smart, inclusive, and probably expensive policies. Gradually opening the European Structural and Investment Funds to the Balkan countries (such as to support infrastructural projects), extending the use of the EU’s financial stability mechanisms to the region or enabling circular migration, for example, warrant serious consideration. The EU should also invite Balkan leaders and citizens to participate in the Conference on the Future of Europe and contribute to the debates on the current reform agenda.
Yet, incentives alone will not suffice to guarantee that the Balkan countries fulfil the conditions set and converge with the EU in political, economic, and social terms. The current method for applying the enhanced conditionality, although more exacting, is still too vague and ineffective. Yes, the EU should use objectively verifiable indicators for measuring progress. But, when it comes to solving the thorniest problems, such as state capture, reconciliation, or statehood, a proper strategy still escapes us. The EU should help the Balkan countries develop more precise ways of tackling sensitive areas of reform, drawing on best practices and involving local actors in the region.
Finally, to rejig the old approach, the division of labour between the European Commission and the member states on enlargement should also be better specified, and the possibility to introduce QMV revisited. The member states’ review of the Commission’s evaluations of progress in the Balkans, which you encourage, risks perpetuating the Council’s recent tendency to diverge from agreed standards and procedures, ignore the Commission’s avis, and derail or block the process for reasons that have more to do with member states’ domestic politics than the situation in the region. Perceptions, as well as rules, count for something in international relations. If EU capitals appear distrustful of the Commission and ready to focus on specific issues or countries rather than the process that has been laid out, the credibility and transformative power of the policy are weakened.
Thank you for making enlargement a topic of conversation. Your input offers a good start to this discussion, which has to be inclusive and sensitive to detail in order to make a difference.
Corina Stratulat (Head of European Politics and Institutions programme, European Policy Centre) and Milena Lazarevic (co-founder, CEP Belgrade)
PS: Conditionality before accession is all very well, but don’t forget about post-accession safeguards against backsliding!