The European Commission has drafted a new methodology to facilitate the enlargement process of the EU, asking for more credibility from Western Balkan leaders on their commitment to implement fundamental reforms. It also introduces the concept of conditionality and reversibility into the accession process.
Areas such as the rule of law, fighting corruption and ensuring the proper functioning of democratic institutions are high on the list, as is showing further effort to strengthen regional cooperation and neighbourly relations.
The plan, made public today was put together following the EU’s decision not to open accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, in October.
France, the main driving force behind the negative decision had argued that both countries had not made sufficient progress with the necessary reforms including reducing corruption and strengthening the rule of law. They demanded that the EU made changes to the enlargement process to combat this.
Entitled “Enhancing the Accession Process- A Credible EU Perspective for the Western Balkans, the EC proposes that EU member states should “abstain from misusing outstanding issues in the EU accession process”. Also highlighted was the need for a “stronger focus on the fundamental reforms essential for success on the EU path.”
It calls for both sides to show better leadership and to live up to their respective public commitments as well as encouraging high-level political and policy dialogue through regular EU Western Balkan summits and intensified ministerial contacts.
A key part of the new methodology is encouraging the Member States to contribute in a more systematic manner to the accession process by conducting on-the-ground monitoring, partaking in annual reports, and reviewing and monitoring overall progress on a regular basis.
The methodology includes provisions for states that perform well, stating that they can benefit from increased funding. Those that delay or backslide on required reforms could be sanctioned and have funding or negotiations halted. This could also result in already closed chapters being reopened or reset if issues within them need to be reassessed.
“The scope and intensity of EU funding could be adjusted downward, with the exception of support to civil society,” it says, while “benefits of closer integration, e.g. access to EU programs, unilateral concessions for market access could be paused or withdrawn.”
Another important change is the clustering of chapters instead of opening them one by one. Put forward as a way to streamline the process, chapters will be grouped into Fundamentals, Internal Market, Competitiveness and Inclusive Growth, Green Agenda, Sustainable Connectivity, Resources, Agriculture and Cohesion, and External Relations. This will allow a stronger focus on core sectors in political dialogue, encourage higher-level political dialogue, and enable the most urgent and important reforms for each sector to be identified.
Overall, it is hoped that this package will create more clarity and predictability in the process while enforcing both positive and negative consequences as necessary. With conditionality at its core, the EC will better define all conditions for candidates in its annual reports and they must be objective, precise, detailed, strict, and verifiable.
The plan will be discussed by the EU Member States at a Brussels summit in March, prior to the Zagreb summit with Western Balkan leaders in May. If approved, the new methodology would apply to all hopefuls in the region; Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and North Macedonia. Both Serbia and Montenegro have both started accession talks already.
It is hoped that if countries are able to move on reform priorities in the negotiations, it will lead to closer integration, increased funding, and more investments in their respective countries.