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24th Oct 2020

EU member states could get bigger role in enlargement

  • 'The purpose of the proposal is to re-establish a credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans', enlargement commissioner Olivér Várhelyi said (Photo: European Commission)

EU member states could have a more hands-on role in the enlargement process, after the EU Commission on Wednesday (5 February) proposed tweaks to the accession process to mollify France's rejection to opening new talks.

While conditions to become a member of the EU will not change, the commission's proposals would give bigger emphasis on policing rule-of-law reforms in accession countries.

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Member states' experts, along with those from the commission, would also be more involved in monitoring the reform progress in candidate countries to avoid diverging opinions on the EU's part on the accession process.

They would also make the process reversible, even though member states have put accession negotiations on hold before for various reasons - in the case of Turkey, negotiations have been dragging on since 2004.

The reform proposals come after France objected to opening enlargement talks with North Macedonia and Albania last October, a move that was described as a "mistake" by top EU officials at the time.

Enlargement commissioner Olivér Várhelyi on Wednesday said he hoped the revised accession methodology would unlock resistance to opening talks with North Macedonia and Albania, before the Western Balkans summit in Zagreb in early May.

And the EU commission plans to publish updated reports on the two Western Balkan countries' progress by the end of February.

"The purpose of the proposal is to re-establish a credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans," Várhelyi said.

"This is a geostrategic investment we all need to make, we hope member states will be partners in this," he added.

With one member down since Brexit, some in the EU are worried that if the bloc doesn't open its doors to countries in the Western Balkan region, nations there could turn their back and look for better relations with Russia, China and Turkey.

Carrots and sticks

Under the revised process, so-called negotiating chapters - specific issues where national rules need to be harmonised with those of the EU - will be handled in blocks, or clusters.

But none of them could be closed without sufficient progress in rule of law issues.

"We will open with rule of law cluster and close the entire negotiations with the rule of law cluster," Várhelyi promised.

The proposal makes it explicitly possible for the EU to suspend negotiations if it finds "any serious or prolonged stagnation or even backsliding in reform implementation and meeting the requirements" in the accession process.

The suspension could be proposed by the commission or "a member state" and EU countries would have to decide on it. The EU could also move to halt EU funds.

"We have to make it clear that we can also go backwards," said Várhelyi, adding "that in our public opinion and in our member states there is a very strong call that we need to be able to reverse also the negotiations."

Member states would also be more involved in monitoring, for instance, with experts going on field missions in candidate countries. The commission hopes this would build trust between those already in the EU and those aspiring to become a member.

It is also a response to member states' criticism to the commission's assessment of candidate countries.

Serbia and Montenegro, which have already started their accession negotiations, could opt-in to the new system, if they want to.

Varhelyi stressed that the EU still aimed to admit the region's six countries: North Macedonia and Albania, as well Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia.

North Macedonia foreign minister Nikola Dimitrov said in a statement that the proposal "will result in a double victory in the coming weeks: opening negotiations together in an advanced process".

'Not only French issue'

France itself has welcomed the EU's proposed changes.

"It's a step in the right direction," Reuters quoted an Elysee official as saying in Paris. "There's a real change of methodology that is being proposed. It's an important and positive one," the official added.

"It's not only a French issue, it is a European issue, we try to address it as European issue, to make the process work for the Western Balkans but also for us in a much more credible way," Várhelyi told reporters, when asked if the proposal was tailor-made to appease French concerns.

Previously, the Netherlands and Denmark have also raised objections to opening talks with Albania, over corruption and organised crimes concerns.

Finland: EU 'not brain dead' on enlargement

EU countries have given a mixed reaction to French proposals on enlargement reform, but ongoing talks did not mean the process had stalled, Finland said.

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France unveils new model EU enlargement

Western Balkan countries should become EU members via a new, step-by-step process, France has said in a detailed proposal seen by EUobserver.

Juncker: 'Historic mistake' against Balkan EU hopefuls

The president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker described a decision to block Albania and North Macedonia from advancing into the next phase to eventually join the European Union as a historic mistake.

EU fails to deliver on Albania and North Macedonia

Denmark, France and the Netherlands opposed opening talks on EU accession with Albania and North Macedonia in a blow that may invite greater Russian influence in the Balkan region.

Opinion

Enlargement: a missed opportunity

The European Commission just missed an opportunity on managing EU enlargement. Instead of taking a hard look at why it's currently failing, the commission tried to appease the most vocal opponent of enlargement – France – with largely cosmetic changes.

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The Kosovan former ambassador to the EU, and previously EU integration minister for her country, warns that tweaks to the enlargement process could cause confusion and overlap with existing procedures.

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