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Flatter and faster: new access routes to the EU for the Western Balkans

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“Dear Aunt Europe,” is how the late journalist Dejan Anastasijevic began his open letter to the European Union in 2017. Writing on behalf of the “Western Balkan Six,” he noted that 14 long years had passed. The EU initially promised to join the six at the Thessaloniki summit. “It’s been a long time. We should talk“, he said. Now, after this month’s European Council failed to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, this conversation takes on new urgency.

The EU’s failure to deliver on its promise is a huge setback for the region, but the reality is that the enlargement process has not been working for a long time. Originally, enlargement was based on the hope that accession would be possible within a time frame allowing current political actors to play their political future there. For people in the Western Balkans, the process promised rapid progress toward a stable and prosperous life. While enlargement also aimed at the higher political goal of European unity, it was essentially based on a compromise between reforms and the achievement of concrete benefits.

Unlike the EU’s enlargement to Central Europe, which was a major strategic priority for the EU, the Western Balkans have long been at the bottom of the EU agenda, particularly after Europe was hit by the financial and migration crises. Preoccupied by these events, the EU had less time and energy to devote to its immediate periphery. In the Western Balkans, prospects for freedom of movement and new foreign investment have lost credibility, while, at the same time, progress on reforms has remained slow and uneven and has suffered significant setbacks in recent years. As a result of these mutually reinforcing trends, the accession process has lost momentum. The European Commission’s efforts to keep it alive by dividing it into ever smaller stages have not remained convincing. The prospect of membership has been pushed ever further into the future until it has become an impossible dream, with the opening of chapters in the accession process being an empty ritual of ticking boxes amounting to mutual exchange of hypocrisy.

Enlargement itself therefore requires in-depth and large-scale reform. But how? The central objective would be to revive the conditionality which is at the heart of enlargement. EU incentives must be more credible: they must come in a timeframe relevant to current political actors and be large enough to interest the public. The conditions for delivering these benefits must be clear and realistic, and the assessment of progress must be objective and consistent.

The Western Balkans have long been at the bottom of the EU agenda

Currently, the enlargement process has a vertical structure: countries move up the ladder from association agreements via the “opinion” of the commission, through candidate status and accession negotiations, to reaching the very last level: membership. The EU should not completely abandon this approach, but in order to restore the dynamics of enlargement, it must complement it with another, “horizontal” approach.

The idea would be to integrate the Western Balkans sector by sector. Progress has already been made in the area of ​​connectivity, with the energy and transport communities, as well as the opening of community programs to Western Balkan countries. With a little effort and imagination, the concept can be extended to many other areas. Adopt and implement the acquired in a particular sector would benefit from targeted financial aid and would allow – once the criteria are met – to participate, possibly with observer or associate status, in the work of the European forums concerned.

This approach would help to strengthen institutional capacities and foster a genuine partnership between the EU and the countries targeted by enlargement. As integration progresses step by step, the line between membership and non-membership – sharp and painful at present – ​​would become blurred. The fact that membership is still several years away would no longer destroy hopes in the Western Balkans, and the final decision on full membership would lose much of its drama on the EU side. It would also offer a clear counter-argument to countries – such as the Netherlands – who believe that the EU enlargement “train” is beyond their control once accession negotiations officially begin.

Promoting progressive horizontal integration would also be in line with current EU trends towards differentiated integration models. Applied externally, it could also help to maintain close ties with the United Kingdom and bring countries without the prospect of membership closer to the EU.

Reforming the enlargement methodology in this way would also help address the problems of democratic backsliding and the rule of law in the Western Balkan countries, in three main ways. First, it would increase the cost of non-compliance, which is currently very low. Second, implementing standards in sectoral areas would strengthen the institutional capacity of the Western Balkans and the EU’s ability to incentivize and supervise rules-based behavior. Finally, integrating areas such as public procurement, state aid and competition into such sectoral integration would help combat state capture practices that the commission identified as endemic in the region.

Horizontal integration would also be in line with current EU trends towards differentiated integration models.

A significant increase in funding would significantly increase the new approach’s chances of success. Where would the money come from? Providing access to structural funds to candidate countries before their accession seems the most plausible solution. This idea, conditioned by the adherence of the Western Balkan countries to the budgetary control of the European Semester, was mentioned by the then Serbian Deputy Prime Minister, Božidar Đelić, in 2011 and supported by all the Western Balkan countries.

The former director of the European Commission for the Western Balkans, Pierre Mirel, recently took up this idea. The EU is now expected to develop and implement this project as part of the ongoing negotiations on the next multiannual financial framework. If the EU wants to give the impression that it takes the prospect of enlargement seriously, it must be able to reward progress more substantially. Currently, Member States of comparable size and level of economic development receive up to eight times more financial aid than candidate countries. This increases divergence, instead of allowing successful candidates to catch up. The problem becomes even more serious when we consider that the path to membership now takes much longer than initially expected. Increased funding would also help differentiate more clearly between countries that are doing well in terms of reforms and those that are not, by linking their allocation to the progress actually made by each state.

Other ideas for reforming enlargement are also part of the current debate. For example, Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative recently suggested the creation of a South East European Economic Area (SEEEA), a further step in the process. The SEEEA would open up the benefits of the internal market to the Western Balkan countries, while postponing the question of its effective membership. Similarly, Mirel suggested a waiting period during which countries gain experience in implementing the acquired before full membership. These ideas aim to restore support for enlargement within the EU, notably in France, while maintaining the engagement of Western Balkan countries. However, it is doubtful whether they will succeed in achieving this latter objective. Unilaterally imposing additional steps on the process 16 years after Thessaloniki could further discourage reform efforts and undermine the region’s trust in the EU.

The sectoral approach is more likely to gain traction in the region simply because it offers concrete benefits at an early stage. This would also encourage a real partnership and common ownership of the common European project. But whatever approach the EU ultimately chooses, one thing is clear: it must not seek to implement unilateral enlargement reform on the basis of its own internal concerns and constraints. Reform must take place in close partnership with countries in the region. After all, it is their future that is at stake.

Milica Delevic is former Director of the Serbian Government’s Office for European Integration (2008-2012) and ECFR board member. Tena Prelec is a researcher in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford.

A more detailed document on the horizontal approach to EU enlargement will be published in the form of a policy study for the Balkans Policy Advisory Group in Europe (BiEPAG).

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take a collective position. ECFR publications represent solely the opinions of their individual authors.

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