Brussels – ESI discusses reform of the EU enlargement process

9 December 2019
Brussels Christmas market. Photo: flickr/Nicolas Vigier
Brussels Christmas market. Photo: flickr/Nicolas Vigier

ESI's Senior Analyst Alexandra Stiglmayer discussed new ideas to revitalise the EU enlargement process, which was dealt a heavy blow in October when France refused to start accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. She spoke at an event organised by the "Centre for European Progression" in Brussels, alongside MEPs Andreas Schieder (S&D, from Austria) and Andor Deli (EPP, from Hungary) as well as Isabelle Ioannides, a researcher and academic currently working for the European Parliament.

Alexandra said that while the French veto hurt and damaged the standing of the pro-European governments in Skopje and Tirana, the enlargement process was indeed in need of reform since it had not delivered for years. She pointed out that it was too long and drawn-out and that there were no interim rewards to motivate reforms; that its different stages – membership application, candidate status, accession talks, number of opened and closed chapters – did not correspond to a country's actual level of alignment with EU legislation and EU standards; that the monitoring and assessment methodology was opaque; that the process was too politicised with more than 70 steps along the way requiring the unanimous agreement of all EU member states; and that the candidate countries did not receive sufficient funds to catch up economically with EU member states.

She proposed three remedies:

  • A concrete, ambitious and meaningful goal could be for all Western Balkan countries to meet the standards to participate in the EU's single market. This would require them to adopt and implement some three-quarters of the acquis. This would not replace accession to the EU, but be a milestone on the way. Like Finland, Austria, Sweden and Norway joined the European Economic Area in January 1994, and three of them became EU member states one year later. For the candidate countries to participate in the single market, the EU would need to create a separate framework.
  • The European Commission should change the way in which it monitors and assesses progress, not only for the chapters relevant for the single market, but all the other chapters, too. It needs to break down all the issues into key requirements and then list what a country needs to be do meet this requirement. Is the adoption of a law enough? Or its adoption and the establishment of the envisaged institution? Or even a track record of the work of this institution? This should be done for all the countries in the same way so that comparisons are possible. Each year, the Commission should describe and assess what has been done and what still needs to be done to meet a key requirement. This process should be entirely merit-based.
  • In order for the countries to catch up economically, they need more money, Alexandra said. This is the logic behind the EU's successful cohesion policy. Alexandra mentioned that Romania, which has a population similar to that of all six Western Balkan countries combined, was allocated 31 billion Euro in the current 2014-2020 budgetary period, which is six times what the six Western Balkan countries were entitled to: 4.2 billion Euro. This, she said, has not helped the Western Balkan states to develop their economies, so EU funding for the Western Balkans should at least double in real terms. (In 1999, when Romania opened accession talks, it stood at 26 percent of the EU average in terms of GDP/capita. It was then the poorest of all candidate countries. In 2018 it stood at 64 percent. Western Balkan countries currently stand between 31 percent (Albania and Bosnia) and 47 percent (Montenegro).)

Alexandra finished her presentation by expressing her hope that the French veto would serve as a wake-up call to EU member states to reform the enlargement process.

The event was moderated by Istvan Szekeres, the CEO of the Centre for European Progression.