We have entered an unusually fruitful period when it comes to ideas on the sorely needed revitalisation of the European Union’s enlargement policy. Of these, the French non-paper has certainly attracted the most attention. There is nothing objectionable about a Member State proposing guidelines for improving a particular EU policy, but they are coming from the one that is least trusted in the Balkan countries these days (which are in the front row for joining the Union). The fact that France vetoed the opening of formal accession talks with North Macedonia in October after the latter had actually delivered cast a shadow over the merit-based approach to the enlargement process. One country gave up on its name to respond to EU demands and resolve a longstanding dispute, after which it got played. How stimulating is this for a resolution of other complicated disputes in the Balkans? Wouldn't France's efforts to help the region’s democratisation be even more significant if it was accompanied by a green light for both North Macedonia and Albania?
Aside from all the facts that call France's good intentions into question, let's take a closer look at Macron's non-paper principles. The paper summarises some of the key ideas that may have been heard in the expert community recently. It involves four principles: gradual association, stringent conditions, tangible benefits, and reversibility. These are essentially good, but need to be further refined in practice. The most problematic part of this new document and approach is still that effective accession will come only once the EU has been reformed. Because no one can predict when this will happen, all potential stringent conditions fall into the background. The Western Balkan states do not need a new methodology and progressive solutions on paper, which will be forgotten in a couple of months, as was the case with the Commission’s 2018 communication on a credible enlargement perspective for these countries; they need improved monitoring and the gradual development of instruments. Therefore, the January 2020 deadline set for establishing a new methodology sounds overly optimistic, as the non-paper foresees some serious cuts, such as grouping areas and reforms within the seven phases (which again requires a new reporting form). We should not lose another year in defining new tools; the existing ones should be improved on the go, retaining all the principles mentioned in the non-paper.
The new approach proposed by France weakens the position of the Western Balkan countries already negotiating membership, because the transition from phase to phase takes time. Although they have not yet achieved any progress in the area of rule of law, they have made technical advancement in other areas. Montenegro, for example, only has five chapters left to obtain benchmarks for closing these areas of the acquis. In this case, it seems that benchmarks for all chapters should be defined more precisely, with a stricter policy of punishing this country for its extremely poor state of the rule of law, rather than returning it to the beginning. Since under the new proposed approach Member States should also decide on the candidate country’s transition from one phase to the next, political over merit-based decision-making should be prevented.
A gradual association is positive in principle, but one should be careful with classifications, since the non-paper itself states that a specific approach is needed for each state, and therefore a candidate country should not wait for a pre-determined phase dynamic if it is ready for integration in a given area. It does not matter if negotiations continue within the current chapters of the acquis, if they are followed by a more decisive system of punishment and reward. Moreover, in relation to the crosscutting issue of the rule of law that still remains to be prioritised and reforms that need to be implemented throughout the integration process, a state should receive a set of specific priorities in this area on an annual basis. Although this has been the case so far under Chapters 23 and 24, these priorities were general and could neither be achieved within a one-year period, nor could progress be adequately evaluated. Therefore, priorities (in addition to specific tasks to improve law enforcement and strengthen the independence of institutions) for a candidate country should be to address particular cases of abuse, such as the "Savamala" case in Serbia or the "Envelope" affair in Montenegro. In this way, a candidate country would show is it really ready to move within the process, and the EU could take away responsibility for blocking the process. In fulfilling these priorities, the European Commission can help with organising ad hoc missions with a specific mandate, just as it promised in last year’s communication.
Furthermore, bilateral disputes have to be located somewhere, and as a matter of course they should be within the scope of Chapter 35, such as the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo. Therefore, such disputes cannot be resolved in the seventh stage of the integration process, as suggested in the non-paper.
To conclude, the principles of the French non-paper and the tools announced in the European Commission communication could develop the methodology for the Western Balkan countries. But even with the best methodology, as we have seen, political will is crucial. Therefore, France and the other Member States, as they persistently remind the Balkans of their lack of political will, could make little difference on their own, if not for our dream of EU membership, then for their own credibility.