EU enlargement: No time for complacency

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It is October again, and it’s time for the European Commission to publish its annual assessment of how enlargement is faring. This time there are reasons to be upbeat. The Brussels agreement between Serbia and Kosovo is arguably the most convincing coup for the EU's foreign policy - and a success for Ashton's EEAS in particular. Albania went through a smooth government change, after a series of contested elections in the past years. And according to the Commission Serbia can reasonably hope to kick start membership talks in early 2014. But to no one's surprise, the ultimate decision will be taken in Berlin - and not Brussels. Enlargement was more or less put on hold till after the 22 September elections; now aspiring countries have to be patient until Angela Merkel cobbles together a grand coalition. However, candidate status is within reach for Albania, pending what the December Council agrees upon. Kosovo is similarly expected to embark on talks for a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA), though the forthcoming local elections will be a critical test of how far normalisation with Serbia has gone. The Commission's DG Enlargement is pushing as far as it can prior to the European Parliament's elections in May next year, which will bring an end to Commissioner Stefan Fuele's term in office.

Similar to last year, Turkey's government is not going to like the report it is receiving as it contains some harsh words concerning the hard-handed way in which the security forces tackled this summer's protests. Yet, unlike some member states, the Commission thinks that the EU needs to reclaim some of its leverage and intensify relations with Turkey. In addition to the chapter on regional policy, Fuele's office actually believes that negotiations should start on two additional dossiers: judiciary/fundamental rights and justice, freedom and security (Chapters 23 and 24). But while regional policy can be treated as a technical subject (in principle the Council decided to open talks back in June), that's not the case of the other two chapters. Reportedly, Cyprus is trying to link both of these chapters with Turkish concessions regarding the Varosha/Maraş quarter in Famagusta in the context of rejuvenated talks on reuniting the island. But overall, EU-Turkey relations look brighter this year compared to 2012. Not only is Brussels poised to restart the negotiations (no new chapter has been opened since June 2010!) but the report positively remarks on the newly announced democratisation package and commends the role played by President Abdullah Gül during the Gezi Park demonstrations. It doesn't take lot of head-scratching to figure out who is their preferred candidate in next year's presidential elections!

The Commission's regular report and the December meeting of the European Council is the right moment to remind oneself that enlargement cannot be stopped or reversed. For all its existential woes, the EU is marching on, particularly in the Western Balkans where Croatia finally joined the EU in July. The question is what to do with countries that are left behind such as Bosnia and Herzegovina and, sadly, former frontrunner Macedonia. The Commission has no silver bullet for both countries and the ball is in the court of member states who feel no urgency to intervene as long as peace and quiet prevail. Next year they might well decide to downgrade DG Enlargement by integrating the neighbourhood portfolio into the EEAS. Who will succeed Fuele on the job will be an important signal of where we are heading.

But complacency is ill-advised. What appears as stability in Brussels looks like stagnation in the Balkans. Brussels officials admit that there's a real clash of narratives and perceptions on both sides. Even countries that are striding confidently along the accession path face tremendous social and economic challenges. The fiscal worries of the Serbian government are a case in point. The Commission's reports are a good barometer of the tough times for the local economies. The end result is that although the EU remains the default option fewer people view it as a promised land. Just look next door at the growing authoritarian tendencies in Turkey reaping the benefits of newly-achieved prosperity or, indeed, Putin's Russia which is represented in the region by its well off holiday property buyers - and you might see some tempting alternatives.

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