The EU should resist moves to halt Balkan enlargement

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

By ignoring Albania’s progress, the EU risks missing its historic window of opportunity, writes Akri Çipa. [Malton Dibra/EPA/EFE]

EU enlargement to the Western Balkans has been marked by continued roadblocks and unjustified delays. The region’s window of opportunity might close soon, another delay could deal a death blow to the enlargement process altogether and that is why the EU should not ignore Albania’s progress, writes Akri Çipa.

Akri Çipa is a researcher, foreign policy expert and consultant from Tirana, Albania.

The European Union adopted in 2018 a new enlargement strategy for the Balkans, in which it acknowledged a “historic window of opportunity” for binding the six countries that are still not members with the European Union. The document clearly stated their future was in the union.

This was reiterated in the strategy’s most recent revision, presented in February 2020 by Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Várhelyi, which proposed an enhanced enlargement methodology at the insistence of some member states. However, we have yet to see any new momentum.

Even worse, the process has been characterized by continued roadblocks and unjustified delays. Another one could deal a death blow to the enlargement process altogether.

Contrarian voices within the European Union that seek to slow down – or even stop – enlargement in the Balkans continue to be effective at blocking the efforts of the Balkan countries to advance the process. Their preferred targets remain Albania and North Macedonia.

With recent reports stating that the European Commission is aiming to revive the enlargement process and push for the first Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) for Albania to be held in June, these voices are seeking to muddy the waters again.

They fail to see how they are doing a terrible disservice to the EU’s leverage and credibility in the region, while also jeopardizing the EU’s own policy framework.

The EU accession process is not as much an end in itself as a means to support positive reforms and induce progress. What some in certain European quarters want to do is to unfairly change the rules in the middle of the game and just for a specific player.

Nobody questions that Albania (and North Macedonia, for that matter) is not yet ready to join the European Union. But that’s not the point in this case.

The issue right now is the official start of accession negotiations and whether Brussels can walk the talk and move the process forward. To that end, there is no doubt that Albania has met all the necessary preconditions. As has North Macedonia, but the latter faces a long-standing bilateral dispute with Bulgaria.

Both Albania and North Macedonia, coupled so far together in their EU path, were scheduled to begin talks with the European Union in 2019. Unfortunately, a few EU member states blocked the confirmation at the European Council, disregarding the European Commission’s recommendation for the unconditional opening of negotiations with Tirana and Skopje.

Such artificial blocks lead to disillusionment and pave the way for foreign actors such as China and Russia to increase their influence in the region. At the same time, the lack of a clear EU membership perspective risks leading to the proliferation of potentially destabilizing ideas for the region, such as the ones presented in a controversial “non-paper” that circulated recently.

With the EU set to discuss enlargement in June, Albania’s fate is at crossroads again. Ignoring the country’s recent progress will fuel a deep scepticism about the European Union and possibly kill the region’s enlargement perspective altogether. And this would be even more difficult to explain when considering the latest progress.

Last month, Albania held parliamentary elections. According to Urszula Gacek, who headed the ODIHR election observation mission in Albania, some irregularities such as “misuse of office and instances of vote-buying still remain,” but she highlighted that “trust in the election process is slowly being rebuilt.”

These well-organized elections, held in a peaceful manner, and defined by an inclusive campaign and respect of fundamental freedoms, can help Albania finally now move beyond the highly conflictual politics of the last two years. And this could potentially mark a new moment of democratic maturity, one which Brussels needs to encourage and nurture.

Furthermore, the judicial reform is finally coming to completion. Institutionally painful and much-maligned by some domestic political actors, the reform was done under the strict guidance of Albania’s international partners.

Coining this closely EU-supervised transformative process as a reason for blocking the start of accession talks, especially now that it is close to its maturity date, would be tantamount to hypocrisy.

Problems in fields such as the fight against corruption, the judicial system, the vetting process, freedom of expression, and the fight against organized crime, remain critical for the country’s democratic consolidation. Certainly, much remains to be done regarding many of these issues.

Yet, the European Commission emphasized in its 2020 country report on Albania how Tirana has met the conditions for the first Inter-Governmental Conference in these key areas. Accession talks and closer coordination with the EU and its member states can incentivize further reforms.

Brussels’ position towards enlargement has been criticized for double-talk and double standards. If it wants to sustain its leverage, and continue to be a force for good in the region, it is time for the EU to adopt the draft negotiating framework and move as quickly as possible with the first IGC with Albania.

The region’s “historic window of opportunity” that the EU defined more than three years ago might close soon. Brussels is still in time to not let that happen.

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