On Wednesday the 5th of February the European Commission proposed a revised methodology for the accession process for candidate and potential candidate countries. This methodology will be applied to Albania and North Macedonia, although for Montenegro and Serbia there has also been foreseen an opt-in in case they want to join. The document strives to inject new dynamism into the enlargement process in the Western Balkans, while attempting to introduce more clarity and predictability, stricter monitoring as well as improved incentives for the soon-to-be negotiating countries to deliver on EU reforms. The negotiating chapters have been divided into six clusters, where the fundamentals cluster will be the first to open and the last to be closed.
Following the French ‘non’ of last October, a certain hold-on fatigue was noticed in Albania and North Macedonia and concerns were raised about their potential detachment from the EU and orientation towards non-EU countries. Therefore, an immediate reaction was needed from the Union in order to keep the countries anchored to the European perspective.
An important aspect of the Commission’s revised approach regards the role of EU member states in the process of accession negotiations, the so-called “stronger political steering”. This new dimension seeks to “put the political nature of the process front and centre” by ensuring a stronger role and engagement of the member states, and certainly it reflects the demands as well as addresses the concerns raised by France on the effectiveness of the existing format of the enlargement process. The member states now will have the opportunity to monitor the progress of the negotiating countries and affect the pace of negotiations. This development seems to put into question the credibility of the Commission’s technical assessments and doubles its efforts.
However, on the one hand, the politicization of EU decision-making remains a widespread phenomenon and has always been inherent to the EU’s institutional structure since its very establishment. Over time, the politicization of EU structures has become more explicit and dominant during critical moments of the integration process, and the recent Brexit constitutes a game-changer in the Union’s further development.
On the other, the politicization of EU enlargement policy has already been present in recent years, and it was certainly not introduced by French President Emmanuel Macron in 2019. Over time there has been a certain level of decoupling between the EU technocratic institutions and more politically-oriented institutions when it comes to deciding about the pace of enlargement. Rather frequently, the recommendations of the Commission to update the state of EU institutional relations with a specific candidate or prospective candidate country have met with resistance from different member states, and ultimately were blocked in the EU Council. An emblematic example in this direction is North Macedonia, which received the first recommendation to open accession negotiations back in 2009, or the latest example, Kosovo, which received the Commission’s recommendation in July 2018 for visa liberalization, and still no progress has been made.
While the politicization phenomenon at first sight seems negative and burdensome for the negotiating countries, it also embeds a structural problem on both sides. In the aftermath of Croatia’s accession, the applied EU conditionality in the Western Balkans has not managed to unleash its potential and deliver the expected results within a given span of time. To a certain extent it has failed also because of the lack of political will of the political leaders to implement the reforms, beyond the legislation adoption façade. There has been a wrong assumption on conditionality as a single tool to push these countries forward, without a constant political pressure from the EU and member states’ side. Unfortunately, these countries have shown that they are not able to perform with the expected speed in the area of fundamentals, and some of them show also features of ‘stabilitocracy’, save for North Macedonia’s embarking on another pace since 2018. The recent Corruption Perception Index shows that all Balkan countries, except for Montenegro, have experienced a worsening of the situation on the ground with respect to 2018. Meanwhile the EIU Democracy Index shows that almost all Balkan countries share features of decline in democratic freedoms, except North Macedonia, taking positive steps, and Serbia, that has not differed. The Commission has tried to focus more on and emphasise the progress made by the countries in given areas, but the reaction of certain member states towards this assessment has led to a “mismatch”, as Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Oliver Varhelyi called it.
Faced with this situation, the Western Balkan leaders have also tried to use the politicization of EU enlargement as an instrument to justify the situations of their domestic constituencies. In the case of Albania, Prime Minister Edi Rama on Twitter stated several times that his country has done the homework and it is France to be blamed for the halting of accession negotiations, instead of reflecting on what the country has done wrong in terms of reform implementation.
Therefore, there is a need to shift the narrative on politicization as a phenomenon embedded in EU decision-making processes. Moreover, it should be clarified further how member states will contribute to this revised methodology for the accession process. This would benefit the negotiating countries and the general image and positioning of the European Commission as the technical institution par excellence.