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The limits of progressive sectoral integration between the EU and the candidate countries

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By Steven Blockmans and Michael Emerson

The European Council of June 2022 invited the Commission, the High Representative and the Council “to advance progressive integration between the European Union and the (Western Balkans) region starting from the enlargement process itself, a reversible and merit-based manner.” .’ Several non-papers by EU member states and think tanks have echoed similar ideas. The most important announcement in this regard was made in May 2023 by Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, who proposed a four-pillar growth plan for the Western Balkans, including an increase in pre-accession funds.

Most of these proposals point towards more differentiated sectoral integration before full accession. Some have even argued that access should be granted to the entire European single market once the “fundamental principles” of respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law have been respected by the candidates. Although this proposal seems attractive, bold and simple, it is actually rather easy since access to the single market can only be ensured after the careful adoption and implementation of all relevant measures. acquired this covers up to half of the approximately 30 chapters of the accession process.

The candidate countries are already engaged in sectoral integration, even if according to one ad hoc approach, within the Energy Community, the Transport Community and the European Common Aviation Area. The regional common market under the Berlin process also relies on EU rules and a closer association with the EU single market to help the Western Balkans in the accession process. Furthermore, the EU has opened its specialized agencies and several EU programs to the participation of candidate countries, on an individual basis, and often with financial support via the Instrument for Pre-Accession.

The problem is that there is little predictability in such initiatives, which therefore provides little incentive for candidate states to pursue major institutional reforms, such as those needed in the justice sector.

Furthermore, sectoral initiatives generally address the Western Balkans region collectively, without making distinctions based on individual countries’ commitment to reform and their progress towards meeting formal membership criteria. The Commission has even asked individual candidates to propose policies, agencies and programs in which they see opportunities for progressive policy implementation, without creating a methodology that would ensure consistency in this process. Perhaps more importantly, the sectoral approach to progressive integration does not foresee a systematic application of the principle of conditionality in relation to the “fundamentals first” method of the enlargement process, which highlights that the he sectoral approach can hardly be presented as promoting buy-in at all levels in a coordinated fashion.

Regarding progressive integration into the EU single market, this constitutes an essential element of each Stabilization and Association Agreement which provides for “transparent access to the internal market” for goods originating in a country of the Western Balkans when it “reaches the equivalent level of competence”. by the application of national rules aligned with those of the Union acquired applicable to the product. In the case of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Zones with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, the agreements are much more explicit, with a list of hundreds of directives and regulations that must be respected within given deadlines.

It is certain that the sectoral approach to progressive integration is politically attractive and can help speed up the formal accession negotiation process. However, this in itself does not advance the formal accession process legally. It focuses on looser cooperation and overall lacks predictability.

At the same time, substantial political participation that goes beyond the scope of association agreements could require the negotiation and ratification of separate international treaties (bilateral or modeled, for example, on the Plurilateral Energy Community), which creates the risk of diverting political attention and administrative capacity. both on the side of the candidates and the Commission of the main task of preparing and conducting the EU accession negotiations. In particular, advocacy for progressive sectoral integration should not be used as an alternative or compensation for lack of progress in the formal accession process.

The freshly revised and upgraded Model 2.0 for step-by-step accession to the EU follows the logic of a horizontal progression rather than a vertical approach (i.e. a sectoral policy). This means that applicants must increase their performance across clusters, including respect for democracy and the rule of law, to progress through well-defined and benchmarked steps to gain access to larger financial support envelopes and greater institutional participation in the process. EU. These benefits provide incentives to pursue the most difficult fundamental reforms.

The EU must provide the necessary momentum for candidates to go through a predictable, merit-based process that will ensure that more reforms are rewarded with more benefits, while stagnation and backsliding will be combated by appropriate measures and reversibility in the integration process. The staged accession model applies this logic in a holistic, systematic and predictable manner, whereas proposals for progressive sectoral integration do not.

Steven Blockmans is research director and Michael Emerson is senior associate researcher at CEPS (Brussels). The staged membership model is a co-production of CEP (Belgrade) and CEPS, in partnership with think tanks of the Think for Europe (TEN) network. The 2.0 model is based on six national reports and more than half a dozen thematic papers which have been discussed with various stakeholders, including European and national politicians and officials in Member States and candidate countries. The final report is available on https://www.ceps.eu/ceps-publications/template-2-0-for-staged-accession-to-the-eu/





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