by dr. Vladimir Međak, Vice-President of the European Movement in Serbia
It must be stressed that the Enlargement of the European Union is a successful EU policy, maybe the most successful one in the foreign policy arena. In order for enlargement to remain credible as a policy and EU as a policy actor in the WB region, the way enlargement is run needs to change. We are at the crossroads: process of enlargement will either accelerate until the final goal of new members joining the EU in a foreseeable future or it will lose its purpose.
Basic assumption necessary for the success of the enlargement process is that the EU sincerely wants to accept new members and that the WB sincerely wants to join the EU and fulfil membership criteria. Proposals are mostly directed to the EU institutions and EU member states since they are defining the policy, setting the dynamic and methodology of the process. WB (potential) candidates should fulfil their obligations regarding membership criteria that are already defined and well known, and not to attempt mimicking their fulfilment.
The European Movement in Serbia and partners from the region have defined twelve proposals on how to re-energize the process, making it successful in the WB without diluting the membership criteria or abandoning fundamental values of the EU. This particularly stands for the rule of law that is under threat both in the EU and in the WB.
- The EU should boldly implement and reform its enlargement strategy. The European Commission’s Strategy has brought back enlargement into the EU policy mainstream as part of its agenda for a new Europe in the year 2025. It is meant to give boost to pro-European and pro-reform forces in the WB region in general, and in Serbia and Montenegro in particular. The general discourse after publishing the Strategy demonstrated that both in the EU and in the WB there is still no critical mass to use all available resources to implement WB 2025 project.
- The EU should demonstrate the political readiness to make enlargement functional, putting it in the centre of its policy by devoting resources and funds, as it was the case in the 2004/2007 enlargement. The EU should be ready to put its money where its mouth is as the flagship initiatives in the new EU Enlargement Strategy rely more on the so-called soft measures (adoption of policies, new institutions etc.) while they are not so explicit on the issues of additional financing.
- The EC is right to insist on three crucial conditions that are linked to WB progress towards accession: the respect of the rule of law, further economic and social development and the advancement of regional cooperation. The EC reaffirmed the merit-based approach to enlargement because the gaps in the accession process among WB countries have become too wide. The insistence on the respect of the rule of law and fundamental rights is one of the reasons why there is still large support for EU integration in the region. However, the EC should be straightforward in naming both concrete practices and those who practice state capture and undermine the rule of law.
- The methodology of running accession negotiations should be altered in order to move quickly toward the opening of chapters and shifting the bulk of reforms needed for the period after a chapter is opened. Current methodology of accession negotiations became an end in itself and it is questionable whether it could lead to closing the negotiations and membership. Roadmaps, as a new instrument in the accession process, should be introduced in every phase of accession in order to streamline the reforms necessary for reaching the next step. The existing mechanisms should be enhanced to give better results.
- The qualified majority voting procedure in the European Council should be extended to the decision-making process in enlargement policy. Currently, a member state has at least 76 opportunities to halt the accession of a candidate country. Reducing this would significantly relax negotiation process and enable faster progress. Unanimity should be maintained for the initial and final decisions in the process, namely to start and close accession negotiations with an individual country. The EU should insist that the resolution of issues is a duty of both (potential) candidate countries among themselves and between (potential) candidate countries and individual EU member states on a bilateral basis.
- The EU should, in particular, devote more funds to enlargement to the Western Balkans. This increase would start with the new MFF 2021-2027, with the goal of reaching 2% of individual WB countries’ GDP in the year of their accession to the EU. The increase of pre-accession assistance would enable the WB countries to be better prepared for accession, meeting the acquis standards and improving the economic convergence with the EU.
- It is necessary to develop, strengthen and maintain the capacities of countries to manage the increased funds. Therefore it is necessary to ensure that the new financial pre-accession instrument for the MFF 2021-2027 is prepared on time and harmonised with the requirements of structural funds − especially in programming, financial management and control. The WB countries should secure a continuous project pipeline and develop and implement efficient recruitment and retention policies for staff dealing with the EU funds.
- The EU should extend the benefits of its internal market to the region prior to accession as much as possible. This should be done through the existing Stabilisation and Association Agreements with the WB as the legal frameworks for adaptation to single market rules and for economic development. Through full exercise of the possibilities envisaged in the existing SAAs, some benefits of the EU internal market can be extended to the WB without the need to amend the existing agreements or the EU legal framework.
- The EU should apply to its trade with the WB the same recommendations it gave to the WB in the Enlargement Strategy, and sign bilateral Agreements on Conformity Assessment and Acceptance of Industrial Products with the WB countries to eliminate technical barriers to trade, which are currently the main obstacles when goods are exported from the WB to the European Union.
- The EU should guide the WB in using state aid rules within the SAAs as a policy tool to gradually redirect public funds from perpetuating economic inefficiencies to supporting investments compatible with the internal market. However, the EU should also demonstrate flexibility for national investment policies aligned with the EU agenda, allowing for the reindustrialization of the region.
- The EU should start perceiving the WB as if it were already a part of the EU. In particular, this should be done by including the WB in the internal work of the EU institutions as much as possible (albeit without voting rights), as well as in discussions about the future of the Union. This approach would strengthen the much-needed feeling of ownership of the process, of acceptance and equality, the lack of which is the strongest argument of anti-EU forces in the WB. Additionally, the EU should extend its internal developmental, regional and infrastructural strategies to include the WB as much as possible in all areas and policies where feasible, such as the Energy Union and the EU Industrial Policy.
- Developing the rule of law and reaching the EU standards in judicial independence, in the fight against corruption and organised crime and in the protection of fundamental rights by the WB should be the ultimate test of readiness for EU membership. No leniency should be accorded in this area. In order to change the situation of “state capture” in the WB, the EU should identify where such state capture exists and name the offending actors in the individual country reports.
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