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Time for a different approach to enlargement: can accession in the Western Balkans be given a new impulse for change?

The Western Balkans accession process is getting some new energy and commitment these days, but not from the ‘usual suspects’ responsible for enlargement negotiations and reforms. A group of academics and analysts from the region and further afield in Europe, united in the platform entitled ‘Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group’ have produced a new policy paper, containing an analysis of the state of play of enlargement talks with the Western Balkans candidate and aspirant EU members.

The paper is good news: but not because the analysis they present in it gives us much cause for optimism. Just the opposite: they present a harsh picture of rent seeking elites that, despite paying lip service to the twin objectives of reform and EU membership, still use ethno-nationalist rhetoric to mobilise eletorates and preserve their own political power. The authors are no more optimistic about the European Union, which in its turn, according to them, is playing a game of ‘conditionality stretching’ that, by making conditions for moving to the next stage of accession negotiations ever more elaborate, reinforces the feeling of stagnation and backsliding in the Western Balkans accession process. EU elites, as the paper suggests, are preoccupied with EU’s own crisis and the consequences of the financial and economic crisis make immigration and free movement questions especially sensitive. And still despite this bleak picture which any scholar and commentator working in the region would recognize, the paper is good news because its pro-active stand, its willingness to name obstacles and to propose scenarios for moving forward, represent much of the independent drive that is needed to make enlargement a success against the odds.

In the MAXCAP project and in various other research networks and policy analysis centers, scholars and analysts are still trying to evaluate the Eastern enlargement and highlight its lessons. Yet it would not be premature to say that the lessons of enlargement in the past (especially the 2004-2007) rounds teach us that the process only gets a positive dynamic if there are reform minded elites of some kind who persist of pushing it forward. Testimonials of participants in the Eastern enlargement – negotiators, key policy makers – suggest that there were many points where the European Union’s leaders mistrusted accession candidates and were reluctant to allow them to move to the next stage, yet commitment to the goal of joining the EU by reformist politicians went a long way to overcome obstacles and initiate reforms. So even though the Eastern enlargement – consisting of the 2004 and 2007 rounds and Croatia in 2013 – started in a much more favourable geopolitical context than the current Western Balkans process, it also had its bottlenecks and setbacks and moments when it seemed it was going nowhere. The efforts of all kinds of people and organizations – from the negotiators that played such an important role in this process to working groups in ministries, to NGOs, businesses in the EU and in the candidate states, and not least, citizens were needed to make that enlargement happen.

Today we are much more fixated on policy conditionality and what the EU can do to stretch out the process even further so that candidates may be pushed to reform. But being stuck on a specific condition or a bilateral issue that has become so fossilized it is impossible to resolve – makes this extensive conditionality part of the vicious circle of enlargement. Where in the past it was about pushing a government in the direction of reforms, nowadays it appears almost that EU governments insist on more and more conditionality as a way to channel their mistrust in future enlargements. Processwise, conditions become institutionalized when they have played a role in negotiations with one country and then past conditions have become a part of the enlargement method. Between all these conditions and the politics of setting them, comparison between countries becomes a lost cause. In the absence of a common push from the EU side, bilateral problems dominate the process.

So in this bleak moment the Balkans in Europe Policy group offers four scenarios for the future of the accession process in the Western Balkans: 1/ business as usual, 2/following Turkey’s path and alienation from the EU 3/ abandoning enlargement and new unpredictability in the Western Balkans and 4/ the Balkans Big bang. The authors argue that creating conditions for a Balkan big bang, their preferred scenario, should not be impossible even in today’s unfavourable EU context. Fewer conditions, posed after talks have started and not prior to their start and more transparent competition between the aspiring and candidate states may be the way to reinvigorate the process. Despite the criticism for conditionality, in my view such a change would require a shift in the member states’ approach and not so much the Commission’s. What is clear is that the current approach to enlargement – as the paper’s authors call it ‘business as usual’ – is not leading to much progress in reforms that would make the countries of the Western Balkans more democratic and prosperous or better neighbours for the EU. Time to try something else?