The long-awaited and much-needed impetus in EU enlargement policy that the new methodology was supposed to bring is still "on hold". Western Balkans countries are not informed of the specific elements and frameworks that should round up and shape the new approach in practice, while the current primacy of political, as opposed to merit-based decision-making at the EU level is giving rise to Euroscepticism in the region.
The European Union's policy towards the Western Balkans has had many ups and downs in the last three years alone; the positive things in this approach mostly pertain to the presentation of new documents and frameworks that are sound, considered at the level of principles, yet offer no specific results in practice, or at least not in terms of significantly accelerating reforms and strengthening democracy. Let us recall the strategy for a credible enlargement perspective and the enhanced engagement of the EU with the Western Balkans from 2018, which has so far served process analysts more than the EU in designing actual instruments to strengthen the rule of law.
Another such framework is the new enlargement policy methodology presented in February, which should provide a “more credible, dynamic and predictable” process for the accession of the Western Balkan countries to the European Union. The new methodology, among other things, envisages an even stronger focus on fundamental reforms, stricter conditions for accession, providing a definition of a so-called "road map" for the rule of law, the functioning of democratic institutions and public administration reform, instead of the action plans used to date, foreseeing a greater role for EU Member States in the process.
A novelty is the grouping of previous negotiation chapters into six so-called clusters and the introduction of rewards and sanctions in line with the results of strengthening the rule of law or absence thereof. The new methodology should be applied in the talks with Albania and North Macedonia, but it has also been accepted by Montenegro and Serbia, regardless of the fact that they have commenced the process of negotiations for full membership in line with the old methodology. In practice, however, even almost a year later, negotiation frameworks for countries waiting to open accession negotiations have not yet been published, and there is no indication that the new methodology will be adapted to countries that are already negotiating.
Rule of Law in the Western Balkans: Old Instruments – New Rules
Considering the state of the rule of law and democracy in the Western Balkans, it could be said that the current conditionality policy does not provide a satisfactory basis for their democratic consolidation. The EU should constantly upgrade this framework by linking and improving the available instruments. In addition to devising new ones, the EU has already used certain instruments in some countries of the Western Balkans, which, in addition to the lessons learned, should be applied to the entire region. With this in mind, as part of the project Strengthening the Rule of Law in the Western Balkans: Old Instruments - New Rules, implemented with the support of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and in partnership with the Centre for Contemporary Policy, in September, the Politikon Network organized focus groups with representatives of civil society organizations in Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia the purpose of which was to consider the possibility of applying the Priebe report, the so-called non-paper and vetting processes in all Western Balkan countries. Below, we present the key conclusions and guidelines relating to the Priebe report and the non-papers.
Powerful instruments to be utilized as a "warning mechanism"
As a response to the “wire-tap” scandal in North Macedonia in 2015, the European Commission formed a group of independent rule of law experts to conduct a rapid analysis of the situation and make recommendations for resolving problems that existed or arose due to the interception of numerous communications. The group was led by German lawyer Dr. Reinhard Priebe, who was already familiar with the situation in the country, as well as with the regional dynamics from his previous five-year term in the European Commission Directorate Genreal for the Western Balkans. The success of the report prepared by this group is based on:
Raising awareness of problems
The Priebe report raised public awareness concerning the dimensions and depth of the problems North Macedonia was facing. This approach of passing on responsibilities from the European Commission to an independent group of experts, so that the group would have the freedom to report on everything without the usual technical and political polishing of the language, was successful.
The group's report is comprehensive and includes all relevant actors such as state institutions, independent agencies and other state and non-state entities, which will eventually become the address for the binding recommendations that have been formulated.
The language used in the report is straightforward and leaves no room for misinterpretation by decision makers.
The report clearly identifies priorities in key areas in need of reform, which resulted from a great number of illegally intercepted conversations and communications.
The group's report instigated a discussion on a societal level, which included all relevant actors, state and non-state, encouraging them to take certain actions.
In light of all the above, representatives of civil society organizations agree that this instrument is extremely useful, but that it should not substitute or become a regular progress report, in order to avoid dualism and overlap in reporting. Such reports should be used in case the state shows regress in its reforms in a specific area or if certain elements of a captured state i.e. institutions are identified. In such a case, a report should be prepared and a group/mission like the one headed by Priebe should be put together. Such reports should be prepared in cases where in-depth analysis and diagnosis are required, as well as for key areas at a particular point in time. In this way, and with specific recommendations, it would be easy to link it to the announced policy of rewarding and sanctioning.
On the other hand, the semi-annual reports on the situation in Chapters 23, Justice and Fundamental Rights, and 24, Justice, Freedom and Security, which the European Commission is currently preparing only for Montenegro and Serbia, should serve as a periodic warning of delays in addressing priorities and fulfilling recommendations. In that sense, the tone of the report itself would not have to be sharp, but instructive.
Is there trust in the enlargement policy at this given moment?
If the perspective of full membership is merit-based, will the EU have its credibility if the results achieved in the process of integration are not accompanied by a moving from one phase of integration to another? If the EU has failed to fulfill its promise once (or multiple times), would that be an encouragement for the other countries of the Western Balkans? The answer is obvious and it certainly is not good for the enlargement process, nor is it good for the reforms in countries where undemocratic authorities take advantage of the status quo to further consolidate their power. It should be borne in mind that the process has been going on for a long time, especially in Montenegro, which has been negotiating membership since 2012, and that there is no clear picture of where it leads and whether the membership perspective is certain. Currently, the coronavirus situation further impedes the reasons for accelerating integration, because it is to be expected that the EU will focus more on the economic recovery of both the Union and the region.
How to improve EU policy towards the Western Balkans?
Taking into account all of the above, the EU should:
- Prevent the primacy of political over merit-based decision-making in the EU;
- Base the process on precise and specific annual priorities in the rule of law area, and their fulfillment should be the basis for a rewards and sanctions policy. The countries of the Western Balkans do not fit into the same framework, which should potentially leave more room for the EU to define clearer priorities and requirements and strictly control their fulfillment. The variety of rule of law challenges demands a variety of effective responses. Therefore, the requirements for each of the countries need to be more measurable. With more specific requirements in place, states could respond more accurately and update annualy their measures to meet those requirements;
- Use the instruments it has already applied in some countries and adapt them to other countries in the region, in addition to the lessons learned, which would help adequately implement the new principles of enlargement, at the same time accelerating the process of the reforms.
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