From: Exit Staff
German Think Tank Proposes Splitting EU Integration into Two Stages 

The Western Balkan countries would benefit more if they first join the European Union’s single market, and hope that European leaders will be able to reform the union before they actually open the door for real enlargement and not just political rhetoric and promises.

Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative think tank based in Berlin explained his idea to Ilva Tare in her debut hosting the Atlantic Council’s “Balkan Debrief” talk show.

Knaus argued that considering the stalling of EU enlargement since 2003 with little to no progress at all for the six Western Balkan countries, as well as Ukraine’s request to join the union, it is more reasonable for all parties involved if the EU split the integration process into to phases: a first one that would aim at integration these countries with the EU’s single market, and a second one when time is ripe for the political decisions within the union to actually accept these countries as members.

In reality, EU doors have been closed for the WB Six despite constant promises, the expert argues, and the introduction of a new model for accession should not be feared because nothing already gained would be lost.

Some countries in the EU, particularly France, do not want the union enlargement into the Western Balkans, and Macron’s latest proposal for a new “European Political community” confirms just that. Macron has promised to reform the union and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also wants the same but the reform is going to be difficult and long, the expert noted.

“We propose to be realistic and honest. The EU needs the Balkans to be prosperous, stable, and integrated. The Balkan economies need to be integrated into the single European market. Otherwise they stand no chance of catching up to doing what Romania, the Baltic states, Poland and Slovakia did so successfully: converging with the average per capita income of the rest of the EU.

So there is an interest on both sides for a real process of integration. But if this process of integration cannot be accomplished for political reasons that are clearly stated in one go, well then, we should look back to the experiences of the past and say, let’s make it a two step process where the first step, which is offering all the Western Balkan countries and Ukraine and Moldova, the chance to join the single market and to enjoy the four freedoms where people can move across the EU as Balkan citizens in the way Norwegians, Icelanders, or indeed Romanians and Bulgarians can, where businesses, capital goods, move freely. Let’s work on realizing this promise of single market integration in the next four years. And that means opening talks with every one of the Western Balkan countries on all the issues related to the single market and promising each of those countries that they can join a new economic community with the European Union that guarantees the four freedoms as long, of course, as they also meet the Copenhagen criteria of democracy and the rule of law. Now, this is doable.”

Asked by Tare on whether this would guarantee the country’s future EU accession, Knaus reiterated that these countries are already stuck in this process, and the EU doesn’t even care to reasonably explain why integration has stalled for them.

“And once these countries are in the single markets like Finland, like Austria like Sweden in 1993, then it’s just the political decision in the European Union, which today the EU is not ready to take, but perhaps then it is ready in four years or in five years, whether to let them in as full members. But if the EU in five years, and that’s the worst case scenario, like now it is not ready because it has not changed, well, at least at that stage, these countries have not lost another four years and they are fully integrated like Norway and Iceland in the single market.”

Domestic businesses would push their governments to strengthen rules and regulations for the single market as they will benefit from it enormously, the expert noted. This will also strengthen the rule of law in these countries and their fight against corruption.

Ilva Tare, is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. She is now hosting Balkans Debrief, a new talk show presented by the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

Balkans Debrief will feature in-depth analysis and exclusive insights with policymakers and key players on subjects impacting more than 18 million people.