Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Várhelyi confirmed to EU lawmakers on Tuesday (19 May) that the publication of the European Commission’s enlargement package has been postponed until autumn due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the negotiating framework for Northern Macedonia and Albania will go ahead as planned in June.
“We are working day and night with the COVID-19 crisis, and given the fact that it is difficult to predict what the economic situation will look like, it will also be difficult to see how the reforms will be fulfilled,” Várhelyi told the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET).
The European Commission’s Enlargement Package includes an annual analysis of the entire enlargement process as well as detailed country-specific reports on the progress of the candidate countries and potential candidates for EU membership.
Since 2018, the package has been scheduled to be published every spring. However, while the reports were originally scheduled for April, then delayed for June due to the COVID-19 outbreak, before again being delayed to autumn.
Moreover, a new methodology to measure the progress of EU hopefuls was recently introduced.
According to Várhelyi, the decision on the postponement was influenced by insufficient human resources and the aim of his cabinet to come up with a ‘substantial’ report to be announced in autumn, together with the European Commission’s economic investment plan for the Western Balkans, announced at the Zagreb summit.
The aim of this delay is also more time for the reforms to be delivered and better predictability in view of COVID-19, Várhelyi wrote on Twitter.
I confirmed today that negotiating frameworks for #Albania #NorthMacedonia will come in June, while annual reports are due in the autumn so further reforms can be delivered & predictability is better in view of #COVID19. Important enlargement momentum continues. @EP_ForeignAff
— Oliver Varhelyi (@OliverVarhelyi) May 19, 2020
Negotiation framework in June
Despite the delay, Várhelyi confirmed that a negotiating framework for Northern Macedonia and Albania, which was scheduled to be presented along with an enlargement package, will be announced in June, as planned.
In March, EU leaders gave green light to the Commission to the start preparing membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania, a turnaround supposed to restore “credibility” after last October, when France led a small group of countries in blocking accession talks.
The Commission had hoped to secure the endorsement of the new strategy by member states and open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania ahead of the EU-Western Balkans summit in Zagreb on 6-7 May.
The summit however focused on COVID-19 instead of enlargement. It also marked tensions between Bulgaria and North Macedonia on the issue of interpretation of common history, which started when Skopje froze its participation in the relevant bilateral committee because of its upcoming elections.
“My focus is on creating a negotiating framework for Northern Macedonia and Albania, and we are coming out with that, as planned, in June,” Várhelyi told EU lawmakers.
“This is a very, very important element because it allows us to continue working on the momentum created around enlargement,” he added.
The new enlargement rules, presented by the Commission in February, were meant to inject credibility, predictability, dynamism and a political steer into the increasingly moribund process – and placate France, possibly the most enlargement-wary member country.
Upon announcement, Várhelyi said the EU must “make it clear what we mean and what it is that we offer” to boost credibility and predictability and keep the process “merit-based.”
To make the negotiations more dynamic, the Commission proposed to ‘cluster’ the different negotiating chapters in six groups, with the option to open negotiations in different policy areas simultaneously and striving to close reforms in different chapters within one year.
Rule of law will take centre stage, with negotiations set to open and close with the rule of law cluster.
The negotiating framework for Albania and North Macedonia will need adoption by the Council of the European Union.