Appetite for EU enlargement hits all time low

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As the European Commission unveiled its yearly ‘progress reports’ on EU candidate countries yesterday (16 October), an Austrian think-tank revealed that domestic public support for enlargement had hit rock bottom, the EurActiv network reports.

In its annual set of progress reports, the European Commission for the second time recommends granting EU candidate status to Albania and, for the fifth time in a row, to opening accession negotiations with Macedonia (see background).

The Commission also assesses progress made elsewhere in the Western Balkans and in Turkey over the past year. Given the Icelandic government's decision to put accession negotiations on hold, a simplified report on Iceland takes stock of the current state of its alignment with the EU.

Speaking in Parliament, Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle for the first time outlined five “fundamentals" underpinning the enlargement process: the rule of law, strengthening economic governance, support for democratic institutions, respect for fundamental rights and ties between the enlargement countries and EU member states.

The last 'fundamental' refers to improved relations between Macedonia and its two troublesome neighbours – Greece and Bulgaria. The small EU hopeful has so far been unable to solve its “name dispute” with Greece. Athens also considers that Skopje is misappropriating large chunks of its ancient history, as does Bulgaria, where its medieval and more recent history is concerned.

Skopje still keeps a document on its Foreign Ministry website claiming that 750,000 Macedonians are currently living in Bulgaria and 700,000 in Greece.

Talks on an agreement to ensure that Skopje has no territorial or other claims to Bulgaria have made no progress, Bulgarian diplomats told EurActiv.

Accession talks at a standstill

Pressed by EurActiv, the European Commission said that it still had a lot of work to do on enlargement matters and dismissed suggestions that it was planning to cut staff in its Enlargement directorate, due to declining activity in this policy area.

In reality however, accession talks with most applicant countries have ground to an almost complete standstill.

Some progress has been made with tiny Montenegro, with whom the Commission opened and closed two negotiation chapters recently. And more chapters are in process of being opened, EurActiv learned.

But talks have stopped with most others, especially Turkey which was pinned down in the Commission report for its troubled relations with Cyprus, and lack of progress on human and minority rights as well as freedom of expression.

Of the 35 negotiation chapters with Turkey, so far only one, on science and research, has been provisionally closed. Thirteen chapters are open, but the EU has suspended the opening of eight chapters over Turkey's failure to implement the Ankara Protocol, which states that access should be granted and ports opened to products coming from the Republic of Cyprus.

The opening of 11 additional chapters has been blocked by France and the Republic of Cyprus, amounting to 19 blocked chapters in total.

In June 2013 EU countries agreed to open the negotiating chapter 22 on regional policy and coordination of structural instruments, with the common position subject to confirmation by EU ministers after the presentation of the Commission’s progress report.

Talks are expected to open with Serbia, in January 2014 at the very latest. The Commission made this decision after Belgrade reached a certain degree of normalisation of relations with its former province Kosovo. Although Kosovo is not recognised by all EU member countries, it has benefitted from a policy of EU rapprochement similar to the pre-accession process.

Low degree of support for enlargement

The Austrian Society for European Policy (ÖGfE) unveiled a survey of Austrian public opinion regarding potential membership of individual candidate countries.

As it turns out, Iceland is the only country whose membership is supported by a majority of respondents (55%) – the same candidate country that recently froze its accession ambitions.

The remaining seven EU hopefuls are viewed with scepticism. “Countries in the Western Balkans, which are the most relevant for Austria, are met with particularly low support,” said Paul Schmidt, ÖGfE Secretary General.

According to the survey, approval for the accession of South East European countries is at very low level, compared to previous Eurobarometer polls. Of these, Macedonia received the "highest" level of acceptance at merely 28%. Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina were each approved by 26%. Close to one fourth of Austrians surveyed (24%) said they would welcome Serbia into the EU, while only one in five supported Albania (20%) and Kosovo (19%) joining. Turkey got the worst results, with only 15% of respondents being in favour to its EU membership.

‘Signs point toward deepening’

Schmidt said that the respondents favoured the deepening of the EU, rather than enlargement. Indeed, 86% of those surveyed responded that a deepening of cooperation among EU member states is either “very important” (48%) or “important” (38%). Conversely, only around one-fourth see EU enlargement as either “very important” (8%) or “important” (16%). Three-fourths chose to describe it as either “less important” (42%) or “not important at all” (32%).

Apart from these clear results, Austrians are divided on whether more decisions in the EU should be taken at the EU level (45%) or at the national level (48%).

“Although the domestic economy is currently gaining from enlargement, thereby strengthening political stability in the region – as far as Austrian priorities are concerned, the EU should consolidate and solve its internal problems,” Schmidt explains. 

Positions: 

Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dačić said yesterday (16 October) that the European Commission’s progress report for Serbia was one of the most favorable so far and that he expected the accession talks with the EU to start no later than January, EurActiv Serbia reported.

After a meeting with EU Delegation to Serbia chief Michael Davenport, who handed him the European Commission report, Dačić said he was satisfied with the assessment given to Serbia, which will continue the ongoing reforms, including the dialog with Pristina.

Serbian Minister without Portfolio for European Integration Branko Ružić said that the European Commission’s report was “very positive.”

“I can note that the report is generally very positive. In a political sense, this may be the first time a positive assessment of progress has been clearly expressed,” Ružić said at a press briefing at the government headquarters, ahead of the presentation of the report.

Richard Howitt MEP (UK, S&D), who oversees EU-Macedonia  relations, said "too much time has been lost" regarding the accession process of this country.

Howitt told the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee that the forthcoming EU Presidency of Greece should enable necessary new political impetus to resolving the longstanding name dispute between Athens and Skopje.

David Lidington, the UK Minister for Europe, said enlargement was one of the EU’s greatest achievements, and the UK strongly supported further enlargement - once the conditions are met - to all of the Western Balkans and Turkey.

“In 2013, we have already seen significant progress, including the successful accession of Croatia on 1 July and the historic agreement reached between Serbia and Kosovo in April.  We want to build on this momentum at the December European Council, where we hope to underline the EU’s support for future enlargement, coupled with a firm-but-fair approach that applies tough conditionality and rewards progress made by individual countries strictly on merit.  It is vital for the credibility of the enlargement process that countries only join the EU when they are fully ready to do so,” Lidington said.

Nikola Gruevski, Macedonian Prime Minister, stated:

“We agree with the European Commission that the start of negotiations will consolidate the reforms and strengthen interethnic cohesion, but it will also keep the credibility of the EU enlargement process based on strong conditionality. Our relations with our neighbours members of the EU are especially important to us, we want to walk the path to the EU cooperating and using their experience.”

MEP Marietje Schaake ( ALDE, the Netherlands), said the the “mistakes in the Bulgarian and Romanian accession process” still haunted the Union today.

“Lessons have been learned. We need to supervise new EU member states strictly and make sure they abide by the rules of the game. We can't just forget about expectations we have created, closing the door now to countries that have shown progress would severely damage our credibility."

MEP Jelko Kacin (ALDE, Slovenia), who is also rapporteur on Serbia, said the reports, which in his words  had been “particularly positive and encouraging”, would give a boost to the reform efforts in the countries of the Western Balkans.

“ The EU needs to keep this positive momentum going by rewarding tangible progress with the launch of formal negotiations in December, providing that local elections in Kosovo on 3 November run smoothly," Kacin said.

MEP Ria Oomen-Ruijten (EPP, Netherlands), who is also rapporteur on Turkey, said she was optimistic about the reform package which has been introduced by the Turkish Minister of Justice. She praised the democratisation package that was recently presented by Prime Minister Erdogan. Nevertheless, she emphasised that the involvement of the opposition and civil society is of great importance for Turkey’s development.

 The report by the European Commission shows at the same time some worrying developments. Oomen-Ruijten referred to the mass demonstrations around the Gezi park in which six people died and eight thousand demonstrators were injured. According to her, these protests show that the deeply-rooted polarisation in Turkish politics is an important obstacle for reforms.

“We reminded the Turkish Government that in a democracy, the majority also has to take into account the position of the minority, and that the right to protest and freedom of press should be respected and protected,” Oomen Ruijten said.

MEP Andrew Duff ( ALDE, UK), said that the "Friends of Turkey” were “disappointed”.

“The truth is that there has been very little progress on either side in the last year – and both sides show a lack of political will and sincerity of purpose. Cyprus remains the biggest obstacle. The new Parliament and Commission next year will have to decide whether to take Turkey's candidacy seriously, or to call the whole thing off. Other options short of full membership doubtless exist," Duff stated.

MEP Hannes Swoboda (Austria), who is the leader of the centre-left S&D group, supported the Commission progress report package “because Europe must be firm in its principles – respect for the rule of law and democracy, reasoned economic governance and efficient institutions that guarantee the fundamental rights of everyone”. 

“I am glad to see significant progress in Albania , notably since its elections, as well as renewed political will for dialogue in Serbia and Kosovo. Montenegro now also has the opportunity to deliver results on chapter 23/24, but freedom of expression must be strengthened for a swift continuation of its accession process. I deplore that Bosnia and Herzegovina continues to delay progress on its accession file by not implementing the Sejdic-Finci ruling. The European Commission has now recommended opening negotiations with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia for the fifth time - the Council needs to finally give up its blockade. After the Gezi park protests and the extreme violence used against demonstrators, EU disengagement of the accession process would be fatal. On the contrary, the relevant negotiation on chapters 23 and 24 must be opened, to address fully the issues of justice, fundamental rights and freedom and security. The reforms relating to freedom of expression, freedom of association and assembly, the rule of law and the rights of minorities and human-rights activists must be accelerated," Swoboda said.

MEP Marije Cornelissen (the Netherlands), who is also the Green/EFA group spokesperson, stated:

“Accession talks with Serbia are planned to start by January 2014 but, before this happens, it is imperative that the Serbian government first adopts a credible action plan against violent hooligan groups and their supporters within the state and the business sector. 

“We welcome the proposal to open negotiations with Albania, conditional on further reforms. Seeing how the parliamentary process was hampered by infighting the past decade, we need to closely monitor the progress on reform.

“It is highly embarrassing that for the fifth year in a row, the Commission has had to recommend opening of negotiations with Macedonia, because the Greek government continues to block this in Council. A solution to the name issue must be found, but this has nothing to do with the accession process. Meanwhile, the support for reform in Macedonia is dwindling. Citizens are getting fed up. The new approach towards Bosnia-Herzegovina is most welcome. After years and years of offering carrots to break the political stalemate, and failing dismally, it is time to start using the stick," Corneliessen said.

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