Hamster in the Wheel. Credibility and EU Balkan policy

Photo: Johannes Menge / Adobe Stock
15 January 2020

Executive summary

Balkan enlargement was in crisis even before EU leaders failed to agree in 2019 on opening accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. Unless there is a change in methodology and pace, no Western Balkan country is likely to be a member of the EU by 2030.

On the issue of North Macedonia and Albania the European Union remains divided. There are three groups of countries: The Netherlands is for opening accession talks only with North Macedonia. France is opposed to separate North Macedonia and Albania and argues that it is better not to start talks with either. Italy insists that talks must start with both. The result of this division is a stalemate. If Paris, Rome and The Hague could find a joint common position, the rest of the EU might rally around it.

How might this be achieved? The French position is that the accession process itself needs to change. This paper agrees: without changes in the way talks are organised Macedonian and Albanian reformers will soon feel like hamsters in a wheel, realising that, regardless of how much effort they make, they are not getting closer to joining the EU even by 2030. To understand why, look at what happened to Montenegro. In eight years, Montenegro managed to close only three chapters. Two of these were opened and closed on the same day. Did the government in Podgorica stop working? Did the EU decide, politically, that it simply does not want to close any chapters?

According to the Commission's assessments, between 2015 and 2019 Montenegro made no progress in 23 chapters; advanced (slightly) in nine; and was backsliding in one. At this moment Montenegro is "well advanced" – the best grade – in zero chapters. The focus on opening chapters has misled political attention. It is no indicator of progress. Credible scorecards are. Today the EU needs to square the North Macedonia/Albania circle. But it must also reform the process, make it truly merit based and offer a credible interim goal that inspires real change. This is possible through a reform that builds on the current system but makes four crucial changes.

  1. A two-stage process: The goal of talks remains full accession, while the intermediate goal is to offer Single Market entry. In a paper circulated in late 2019 France suggested different stages. This idea can be simplified: there are two stages. The first stage is joining the Single Market in the way Finland, Sweden and Austria did in 1994. Joining the Single Market by 2025 would be a realistic goal for Balkan frontrunners. Joining the Single Market by 2030 should be a realistic goal for all Western Balkan countries. This should only depend on them. They would then enjoy the four freedoms – the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour – that Norway and Iceland enjoy today.
  2. Opening and closing all chapters together: Instead of opening and closing chapters one by one, they could all be opened at the beginning and closed all at once. The key measure of progress is not a formal one, but substantive changes measured in progress reports.
  3. The rule of law becomes truly central: All democracy, rule of law and human rights conditions must be fully met before any country can join the Single Market. Rule of law conditions would be as demanding for joining the Single Market as for full membership, and monitoring of these even stricter.
  4. Reversibility: If any country seriously violates basic human rights or undermines the independence of the judiciary it should be possible to suspend the accession process with a simple majority of members voting. Suspension should have real effects, including freezing pre-accession funding. And it should also be possible to restart talks with a simple majority.

Carrying out the reforms needed to join the Single Market and to join the EU has been phenomenally beneficial for peripheral economies. Catching up is possible. North Macedonia today is at the level of development where Lithuania was in 1999. Serbia today is where Estonia was in 1999. Bosnia 2018 is the Romania of 1999. Countries can change. Enlargement policy can have a major impact. For this is must be credible, merit based and serious. It has happened before. It can happen again.