Since the Thessaloniki summit in 2003, where the EU expressed support for all the Western Balkan countries, only Croatia has become a full member of the bloc. A recent report suggests Brussels should revamp the handling of the whole process, with a directorate that would only deal with EU hopefuls.
In the light of recent developments in the EU’s neighbouring areas (military conflict in Ukraine, Crimea annexation, democratic backsliding in Turkey and Western Balkans) some politicians and experts warn that the EU shouldn’t let these countries wait for a very long time.
The Open Society European Policy Institute suggests creating a Directorate General Europe for Future Members and Association Countries (DG Europe), that would have the resources to drive forward the accession process with the six Western Balkans countries and the ambitious trade and reform agenda in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.
The Open Society European Policy Institute (OSEPI) is an EU policy arm of the Open Society Foundations, which promote democracy, human rights and justice. The OSEPI works to influence EU policies, based on its vision and values.
It provides evidence, argument and recommendations to policymakers in EU institutions. It also conducts own research on political trends in Europe.
“The EU should boost the tools of the European Commission to steer the process of the unification of Europe,” is written in the report, which was recently published.
Enlargement was not high on the agenda of the outgoing Juncker Commission in the last five years. Instead, it was Other things such as Brexit and rising populism that drove the Commission’s policy.
On the other hand, Johannes Hahn, the current enlargement and neighbourhood Commissioner, clearly showed his priorities in the number of visits to the Western Balkans and the three association countries. Western Balkans countries received almost 50 % of his visits.
“We are not 100 % there, where we would like to be, but I think that we made a progress. There is geostrategic importance of integrating the Western Balkans. We are not talking about the backyard of the EU, it is the inner-yard of the Union. It is obvious that sooner or later these six countries can be integrated,” said Hahn.
Despite this fact, The Open Society argues in the publication, that “a commissioner who is consistently dividing his time between completely different regions will not be able to give the in-depth attention needed for the demanding political and reform agenda with prospective member states and association countries.”
According to the Open Society Institute, the lack of attention undermines the commitment to the reforms, therefore, the EU needs a DG Europe which would deal with enlargement and the association policy and focus exclusively on these countries.
The current DG NEAR treats the entire neighbourhood – east and south – as a coherent region of similar EU engagement.
DG Europe’s agenda should also cover three countries in Association, which are given limited attention. According to the report, placing of these countries within DG Europe is needed because of the administrative burden of implementing the Association Agreements.
It would also support the function of trilateral talks and bring under one directorate cooperation, which is currently taking place within regional groupings.
“If membership negotiations continue as they have, they will lack credibility from all sides and thwart the integration of these states into the EU. And without greater administrative engagement from the Commission, the Association Agreements will not fulfil their potential to deliver stable institutions, rule of law and market integration,” OSEPI explained.
OSEPI also suggested qualified majority voting by the EU Council, arguing that consensual voting in the accession process gives an easy excuse to member states to halt enlargement at any stage because of bilateral disputes.
The EU showed in its 2018 Western Balkans Strategy that is very open to the enlargement process and defined the main problems related to the Balkan countries, such as the rule of law, bilateral disputes, economy, corruption or organised crime, which are still too serious for the countries to progress towards membership.
But a number of EU countries are reluctant about future enlargement, as was seen at the recent General Affairs Council, where several member countries opposed the further progress of the Balkan countries even though they ticked most of the required boxes.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]