Thursday

21st Mar 2019

EU enlargement heading into chilly period

  • Winter in Belgrade: Serbia's decision to build a Russian gas pipeline is an additional irritant in EU ties (Photo: Wolfgang Klotz/Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung)

The European Commission is not recommending any fresh steps on Western Balkan enlargement in the next 12 months, but wants to open two new “chapters” in Turkey talks.

Its annual packet of reports on EU-hopeful countries, out on Wednesday (8 October), said for the sixth year in a row the EU should open negotiations with Macedonia.

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But it noted that Skopje’s accession process is at an “impasse” due to “backsliding” on democratic reforms, the opposition’s boycott of parliament, and “failure” to make progress in its 19-year name dispute with Greece.

In contrast to last year’s reports, when Brussels gave conditional recommendations to make Albania an official “candidate” and to open negotiations with Serbia, this year’s documents do not endorse any other legal steps in the region.

The tortuous path to EU membership begins with implementation of a “Stabilisation and Association Agreement” (SAA). EU countries then give the aspirants candidate status. The next step is to launch negotiations and to open and close all 35 legislative chapters.

Montenegro is the furthest ahead in the Balkans, having launched talks and opened 12 chapters.

But instead of opening extra chapters, the commission said it should do more to stymie corruption and should “accelerate” investigations into “violence against journalists”.

Serbia has started negotiations but not opened any chapters.

The reports praised its “political impetus” to fight graft. But it said “corruption remains prevalent” and called for “concrete results” on organised crime.

It also said Serbia’s progress is tied to “normalisation” of relations with Kosovo. But Kosovo’s inability to form a government after June elections has seen the process all-but grind to a halt.

Albania, a candidate, was praised for reforms. But the opposition is also boycotting parliament and the commission said nothing on launching negotiations.

Bosnia and Kosovo are still trying to complete their SAAs.

The commission said Bosnia’s progress is at a “standstill” due to political infighting among ethnic factions.

It said it “looks forward” to concluding the Kosovo SAA, but stopped short of formally backing the step.

Special case

The reports describe Turkey as a special case.

They call it as a “strategic partner” on Middle East foreign policy and on energy security.

They also say the EU should open two new chapters - 23 and 24 on rule of law - to create a “comprehensive roadmap for reforms in this essential area”.

But Turkey is also special due to its crackdown on police and judges who tried to investigate graft in the ruling clan; its mass jailing of journalists; and police killings of peaceful protesters.

Meanwhile, Turkey's 40-year territorial dispute with Cyprus, which is seeing Nicosia block several chapters, shows no sign of going away.

Cyprus on Tuesday suspended UN-led peace talks after Turkey said it will send a warship to protect gas exploration in a disputed maritime zone.

MEPs, at a hearing with the EU’s outgoing enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fuele, on Wednesday praised him for shepherding Serbia to “make a strategic choice in the direction of the European Union” and for keeping Turkey’s “commitment to the EU alive”.

For his part, Fuele said that despite “enlargement fatigue” in EU states “when a country delivers on our reforms, we deliver on their European perspective”.

But he voiced concern on two new trends in the Balkans - parliamentary boycotts and gagging of free press.

“There is another phenomenon which is there, a reform fatigue, which is equally as important [as EU enlargement fatigue]”, he said.

The lack of new recommendations on Balkan states comes after incoming commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said there will be no new EU countries during his five year term.

He also downgraded the “enlargement” portfolio, renaming it “enlargement negotiations”, and giving it to Johannes Hahn of Austria, one of the most enlargement-sceptic EU countries.

Winter coming?

One EU official told EUobserver it is “not true” that enlargement is heading into a chilly period.

“We have work in progress and we proceed ahead full steam ahead based on achievements by the partners”, he said. Referring to the mixed bag of problems in the region, he added: “So what could be the new recommendations this year anyway?”

A second EU official noted: “They don’t want to admit it openly, but what we are seeing is a de facto freeze on enlargement”.

He added that DG enlargement - the 900-or-so commission staff who work on the policy coalface - are to be given a lower status under Hahn, whose dossier also includes relations with "neighbourhood" states such as Ukraine.

“Just wait till you see the new organigramme [on Hahn’s administrative hierarchy]”, the contact said.

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