The European Commission put forward proposals to improve the effectiveness of the accession process regarding the countries of the Western Balkans which 1) have a European perspective and 2) which have fulfilled the Kopenhagen criteria for opening accession negotiations. These proposals are to be welcomed as the main problem is not whether the Western Balkans countries will adopt and implement EU legislation – which they will in time – but whether they will be prepared to act in conformity with the underlying principles: human rights, democracy, rule of law (no party control over the judiciary), freedom of the media, and will wish to combat corruption effectively. A commitment to these principles is necessary in order to ensure that the European project itself will not be undermined by the new member states, when they have fulfilled all the other criteria.
The Commission now urges the Western Balkans countries in its document https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/sites/near/files/enlargement-methodology_en.pdf to “deliver more credibly on their commitment to implement the fundamental reforms required, whether on rule of law, fighting corruption, the economy or ensuring the proper functioning of democratic institutions and public administration, and foreign policy alignment” and the “Western Balkans leaders must show further efforts to strengthen regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations to bring stability and prosperity to their citizens, while giving confidence to the EU that the region is addressing the legacy of its past”.
The Commission also asks of the EU “an unwavering commitment to a merit-based process. When partner countries meet the objective criteria and the established objective conditions, the Member States shall agree to move forward to the next stage of the process. All parties must abstain from misusing outstanding issues in the EU accession process. In the same vein, Member States and institutions must speak with one voice in the region, sending clear signals of support and encouragement, and speaking clearly and honestly on shortcomings when they occur. Credibility should be reinforced through an even stronger focus on the fundamental reforms essential for success on the EU path. These fundamentals will become even more central in the accession negotiations. Negotiations on the fundamentals will be opened first” (in the case of the Western Balkan countries, with which the negotiations haven’t started as yet).
The Commission proposes to this effect a welcome reform of the accession negotiations. The action plans for the rule of law chapters will be replaced by roadmaps and interim benchmarks – and this is really important – no negotiation chapter will be provisionally closed as long as these benchmarks are not met. New is as well that a roadmap on the functioning of democratic institutions and public administration reform is going to be set up. Anti-corruption work will be mainstreamed in all the relevant chapters. Support to regional cooperation will continue unabated and the bilateral disputes need to be resolved, with a particular emphasis on the EU-facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, which should be concluded with a comprehensive, legally binding normalisation agreement.
The Commission also proposes stronger political involvement of the member states by promoting high level political and policy dialogue with the Western Balkans countries, political steering of the accession negotiation process in the Inter-Governmental Conferences. Member States will be invited to contribute more systematically to the accession process, including via monitoring on the ground through their experts, through direct contributions to the annual reports and through sectoral expertise. Furthermore, member states will get the opportunity to review and monitor overall progress more regularly and will get more access to information the Commission is gathering.
A new procedure is proposed to deal with stagnation or backsliding. The Commission or a member state will be able to propose that the negotiations be put on hold in certain areas, or in the most serious cases, be suspended overall. Already closed chapters could be re-opened or reset if issues need to be reassessed. Such a proposal can be carried by qualified majority.
Will it help?
The aims are commendable: commitment on both sides is needed to help the candidate countries become successful and reliable member states. The fundamentals – democracy, human rights, rule of law, no tolerance for corruption, as well the principles of a mixed market economy – should indeed get an even higher priority in the negotiations. By stipulating that no chapter may be closed as long as the benchmarks in the Rule of Law Chapters are not met, the EU would indeed encourage candidate countries to prioritize Rule of Law Chapters. Already now, any member state can stop progress in the negotiations by simply not agreeing to the provisional closing of a chapter. A formal instrument, linking progress in the Rule of Law Chapters with any progress in the other chapters, and allowing decision-making by qualified majority will strengthen the hand of member states which take the Rule of Law Chapters and their underlying principles – democracy, human rights, freedom of the press, combating corruption seriously.
Considerable importance should also be attached to the declaration of the Commission that it will make available its assessments in more detail. Many member states already now possess sufficient detailed information on the political situation within the candidate countries and may have acquired specialized knowledge on a number of chapters. The Netherlands has a track-record on focussing on Rule of Law issues. But when it comes to the expert missions and in-depth technical discussions with the candidate countries, which are necessary to assess shortcomings and progress, the Commission possesses valuable information which is not always made fully available to the member states. Thus, it will be very helpful if in future these assessments are shared in more detail. It would be commendable if one step more would be taken: extending this transparency to the European Parliament and the parliaments of the member states, as well as to the public at large.