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Is the EU accession process ready for a change?

Updated: Oct 21, 2019

Jelena Radakovic, University College Dublin

This week, all eyes were on Brussels as negotiating teams once again endeavoured to reach an agreement that could suit all sides and allow the EU to move on from the ongoing Brexit saga that has now spanned for more than three years. The process has showcased the enormous difficulties involved in reaching a compromise on complex and politically divisive issues, and indeed the lack of willingness of parties to negotiation to cede ground to their counterparts. One may even say that we have been the audience to an ‘endless soap opera’ in recent times.

Although this is a term that aptly describes what has gone on in the period since the UK voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, Brexit is not, in fact, what was being discussed. Indeed, it was the EU enlargement and accession negotiation processes, that French Secretary of State for European Affairs, Amelie de Monchalin, was referring to.

As a result, this week’s meeting of EU foreign Ministers saw the accession paths of candidate countries North Macedonia and Albania diverted again, for the third time since 2016.

This outcome will bring significant frustration to North Macedonia and Albania, particularly when one considers the great strides that both countries have made in terms of putting in place the necessary requirements to enter into EU accession talks. North Macedonia, for instance, even went as far as resolving the decades-long dispute with Greece over its name. While of course these efforts only scratch the surface of what is necessary for accession to the Union, their scale should not be underestimated. Several EU Member States, the European Commission, and much of the public reaction agrees that this outcome is a mistake, and the potential negative consequences are still to be seen.

There are of course valid points to be made regarding both countries. Should they perhaps be considered separately and proceed independently of each other? Yes. Should alternative approaches, which put a greater focus on the economic convergence of these countries with the EU, be established? Yes. However, opening up talks and kick-starting the long journey towards accession is a small step for the EU, but is a giant leap for both countries and this is why these talks should have been approved this week.

One thing is clear: the process is in urgent need of reform; there is a big need for greatly increased transparency, and the efficiency concerns raised by France need to be addressed.

The hard line taken by the French Government which led to the negative outcome at Council for these two countries may have come at a good time, not only for them, but also for the other Western Balkans countries that are already in the accession process (Serbia and Montenegro), and the ones that are waiting to become candidate countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo).

While the speed of the political and institutional progress being made by North Macedonia and Albania is slow, the same can certainly be said about progress on other issues pertaining to the accession process in the two Western Balkan countries that are currently going through it. In Serbia and in Montenegro, the same well-documented issues around liberal democracy that we have seen in recent years in a number of EU Member States are very much present. Problems with the rule of law, media freedom and freedom of expression continue to stifle progress in the region.

Despite these concerning trends, the EU accession process in Serbia and Montenegro continues, and we will eventually see both countries enter the EU as Member States. If, as the debates and official EU reports show, these illiberal practices in both countries persist, the EU accession process, which, is supposed to promote liberal democratic values and practices, might actually prove paradoxical, in terms of what it leads to in these countries.

Put simply, if the EU continues with a lenient approach to these issues during the accession process, the future of enlargement, and even the EU itself, will be at risk.

France’s objection, though pushed through for different reasons, should be observed not only as a miscalculated step - which it was - but also as something that can ensure that careful consideration is given to this process, which carries so much importance in new democracies.

Although President Macron’s proposal for ‘a new methodology for accession negotiations that makes them less technocratic, more political, and reversible’ is valid, this will not be sufficient.

We need to accept two things: firstly, the ‘European perspective’ for candidate countries that is continuously put forward by the EU is a flawed concept. These countries are European countries, and by creating such a division along ‘us and them’ lines, we cannot expect the necessary normative and institutional change to take place over the course of the process.

Secondly, each Member State of the European Union is diverse in many ways and this is why the European Union, as a project itself, is so impressive. The Western Balkans countries are similarly diverse. Therefore, by accepting our own diversity, we must also accept that it will take time to change some of the undesirable practices that were developed in previous systems in these countries. Systems that, of course, were anything but democratic.

A question of when these countries will enter the European Union should not be of primary concern. A path towards integration, vis-à-vis a process, which can see standardisation and compatibility of common norms and procedures to those that exist in the EU, is far more important. The global character of the EU should inspire and, indeed, require that countries participate in the creation of new ideas, new identities and new characters for their states.

However, if the EU wants to be a part of this change, it needs to be willing to give a helping hand when it is needed and ask for.

Jelena Radakovic is a PhD candidate at the School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin.

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