The Western Balkans enlargement perspective
With the painful experiences of new Member States breaching the rule of law and democracy principles inside the EU and no tailor-made remedy to punish and enforce EU values, the Commission suggests in its Western Balkans strategy that future accession treaties could provide for such a mechanism to strengthen the rule of law for these newcomers.
From grand fatigue to alive and kicking?
On 17 May 2018, the yearly EU-Western Balkans summit between EU heads of State and their counterparts from the Western Balkans region took place in Sofia, Bulgaria. This event lines up with the EU’s refocus on the region since the Commission President Juncker underlined in his State of the Union speech in September last year the importance of a credible enlargement perspective for Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia (currently concrete accession negotiations have been started only with Montenegro and Serbia, Macedonia and Albania hold a candidate status).
Since 2006 the EU has been diagnosed with an enlargement fatigue, the European Union and its Member States absorbed 13 new Member States since 2004 and grew from 15 to 28 Member States. When Croatia as the last candidate joined in 2013, the EU Member States had become wary of further accession in times of recurring crises of the European Union project and in light of the challenges posed by the post-accession integration of new Member States, especially of Bulgaria and Romania, for the common integration project. The European Commission under Commission President Juncker already indicated in 2014 that no further enlargement would take place in the following five years. This ‘downgrading’ of enlargement became visible in the merging of the Directorate Generals of ENP and Enlargement into DG NEAR since 2015. The seeds of discontent among and between Member States with regard to the future path of enlargement policy are increasingly difficult to hide. For the first time, in December 2016, no consensus on the yearly Council Conclusions on Enlargement and Stabilisation and Association Process (laying down the main aims and objectives of this policy) was reached between EU Member States.
Has the Union given up on its the most successful EU external relations policy? Not really, firstly, the Union’s interests are formed by many actors, Union institutions and EU Member States. Secondly, a minimal consensus among all actors, that EU institutions, and the Member States exists not to abandon the effective tool of an accession perspective for neighbouring countries. The EU enlargement policy influences and aligns third countries’ policies to EU law and stimulates reforms in national administrative and legal orders of neighbouring countries in anticipation of accession. But 25 years of pre-accession and post-accession struggles to integrate former communist regimes, enthusiasm about the nexus between EU reforms and enlarging the Union has worn off and is replaced by skeptical realism about what can be achieved. The conditionality conditions have been sharpened for candidates but also work in two directions: Candidate country and EU. The candidate country has to fulfill all political, economic and legal criteria known as the Copenhagen criteria to become a full-fledged member of the Union and the EU has to be ready to accept this candidate country. Especially, the latter condition has changed into an erratic condition. At the beginning perceived as the condition for the EU to be institutionally prepared to accept new Member States, it became an absorption capacity condition by adding financial sustainability (since 2004) and, at the time of the renewed consensus on enlargement in 2006, the need for a broad and sustained public support in EU and acceding Member States.
How do we have to read and interpret the new attention devoted to the Western Balkans? First of all, it is not that new. The EU aims to reinforce its commitment in the region since 2014 with yearly Western Balkans summits. But it is recently driven by a mix of bad conscience and realpolitik. The EU’s migration crisis was at its height also resolved by the closing of the Western Balkans route in which these states fulfilled an active role of keeping migrants out with an iron fist. Furthermore, any vacuum of political leadership on the Balkans might be filled by Russian or Turkish ambitions. In addition, it is a standing practice in the Union to recalibrate its enlargement policies over the years. In 2006, the renewed consensus on enlargement tried to refocus the Union on enlargement under strict conditions and focus from the beginning on the difficult negotiation chapters administrative and judicial reform, combatting corruption and upholding the rule of law. This is still relevant but good neighbourly relations and solving bilateral disputes are now emphasized for this region.
The credo “credible perspective” takes up EU and Western Balkans interests and concerns, translates them into six flagship initiatives, including strengthening of the rule of law, security and migration, putting a special focus on youth and vocational training, a digital agenda for the Western Balkans, reinforce engagement on security and migration, to increase connectivity and support reconciliation and good neighbourly relations. In the case of connectivity, the EU already integrates the Western Balkans states in the Energy Community Treaty, the Common Aviation Area Agreement and lately the Transport Community Treaty (2017). These international agreements export parts of the acquis in sectoral policies to the Western Balkans and are enforced through the binding jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. These regional organisations come in handy to aim for palpable results without an accession in the near future. While the Commission speaks about a Member States perspective by 2025, many stumbling blocks are in the way, in the EU, among EU Member States and also candidate countries. The new notion of credibility is at the end more directed at the Union, it once more changes the Union absorption capacity into the Union remaining “credible, firm and fair” (Commission Communication A credible enlargement perspective).
With the painful experiences of new Member States breaching the rule of law and democracy principles inside the EU and no tailor-made remedy to punish and enforce EU values, the Commission suggests in its Western Balkans strategy that future accession treaties could provide for a such a mechanism to strengthen the rule of law for these newcomers. These ideas will be presented in October 2018 and could take the form of long-term safeguard measures to punish for breaches of rule of law and other central EU values even once they have become EU Member States.
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