The new French EU enlargement reform proposal is a reasonable attempt to overcome the debate about Macron’s recent veto. 

Across Europe, France’s obstruction of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania is widely seen as a step backwards. However, Paris does not dispute the accession perspective for the Western Balkans. President Emmanuel Macron’s intentions are best described as an attempt to begin a wider discussion about the accession process, its practicality, and its ability to produce tangible results. And rightly so. The European Union’s current enlargement policy is defective and is largely based on the mutual exchange of hypocrisy: the bloc pretends to enlarge and Western Balkans countries pretend to reform.

Progress reports by the European Commission – to name just one example – are often seen in the region and beyond as supportive of Balkans strongmen. The perception is, to a great extent, a consequence of the Commission having lost most of its leverage due to endless delays and the hollowing-out of the enlargement process. This half-hearted support is, on its own, counterproductive to substantive reform because it favours box-ticking exercises. In some instances, the constant push for reform has thrown Western Balkans institutions into a state of chaos and overcomplexity. In the case of Albania, for example, the process of intensively vetting judges and prosecutors started under pressure from the EU but, by 2019, had left the country’s Supreme Court with only two judges, rendering it non-functional.

To fix the problem of dysfunctional enlargement, the EU should make the process political and reversible. As Macron mentioned in his recent Economist interview, the EU has to remember that it is, most of all, a community rather than an ever-expanding market. Therefore, France opposes the current EU policy of “automaticity” and looks to replace it with a process that is responsive to member states’ often challenging domestic conditions (most EU voters are against further enlargement). However, this carries the risk of veto by neighbours – as Greece has demonstrated. Qualified majority voting may be the way forward on enlargement, as on other issues of strategic interest for the EU.

Another type of politicisation should occur within candidate countries: their leaders should stop paying lip service to EU values while following authoritarians’ playbook. The EU should also avoid paying off countries such as Serbia to prevent them from signing free-trade agreements with the Eurasian Economic Union. Such behaviour is reminiscent of that of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, who, under pressure from Moscow in 2013, withdrew his country from the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area that formed part of its EU Association Agreement. If candidate countries want to have a credible chance at accession, they should not wait for the EU to exert pressure on them. (And the EU should show that it is prepared to apply pressure, if necessary.)

The current enlargement policy is largely based on the mutual exchange of hypocrisy

With the so-called "non-paper" it recently released, France is now pushing for procedural changes and suggesting a seven-stage process to “converge towards European norms and standards”. The paper also includes a “reversibility” component, which allows Brussels to abandon membership talks if the government of a candidate country no longer meets EU standards. At the same time, the proposed principles could provide the EU with a chance to rethink the enlargement process – but also to win back the interest and support of countries in the Western Balkans.

France’s new approach to the EU accession process is largely based on the so-called horizontal method: candidates would make reforms in various areas, gaining access to select EU programmes and gatherings along the way, before attaining full membership. The idea, which was articulated shortly before the publication of the non-paper by Milica Delevic and Tena Prelec, is to integrate the Western Balkans sector by sector, while keeping the current legal framework intact. For instance, there has already been progress in connectivity, in the form of energy and transport networks. With some effort and imagination, the parties could extend this concept to many other areas. The EU would support the adoption and implementation of the acquis communautaire in a particular sector with targeted financial assistance and would – once the candidate country met certain criteria – allow it to participate, perhaps with observer or associate status, in the work of the bloc’s relevant forums. The creation of a community occurs via exchanges in EU meetings, in which compulsory friendship relativises bilateral problems.

By reforming enlargement methodology in this way, the EU would also help address democratic backsliding and rule of law problems in Western Balkans countries. It would do so in three main ways. Firstly, the new approach would increase the cost of non-compliance, which is currently very low. Secondly, the implementation of standards in targeted sectors would enhance institutional capacity in the Western Balkans and the EU’s ability to induce and oversee rules-based behaviour. Finally, the incorporation of areas such as public procurement, state aid, and competition into sectoral integration would help tackle practices of state capture that the European Commission has identified as endemic in the region. The process of frontloading Chapters 23 (on the judiciary and fundamental rights) and 24 (on justice, freedom, and security) of the acquis would, for example, emphasise their importance.

For the first time in many years, new options for the EU’s approach towards the Western Balkans are emerging. While the EU risks alienating countries in the region and inflaming nationalisms old and new, it has an opportunity to revise the enlargement process and increase its efficacy. The development of the current process into one that is more political and reversible should address both enlargement’s current deficiencies and the concerns it generates among member states. While all proposals for the revision of the enlargement methodology envisage an increase in funding, the EU needs to maintain control of any funds and take into the account absorption capacity of candidate countries. Finally, by opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania in March, the EU would create the political momentum needed to implement these plans.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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