On 18 June 2019, the General Affairs Council (GAC) met in Luxembourg under the auspices of the Romanian presidency. Among other issues, its agenda included a discussion on the EU’s enlargement policy. It is the GAC that shapes decision making on enlargement and its conclusions are then discussed and endorsed by the European Council.
Seeing the current challenges that the EU is facing, enlargement is not the main priority of the Union. In the past years, the Union has faced multiple challenges starting with the financial and migration crises, Brexit and the ongoing rule of law backsliding. However, at least for two of the Western Balkan (WB) countries, namely Albania and North Macedonia, the GAC meeting was awaited with high hopes: on 29 May 2019 the European Commission had recommended to the Council the opening of accession negotiations with both countries.
Yet, the GAC in its conclusions of 18 June 2019, which were later endorsed at the European Council meeting of 20 June 2019, decided to postpone its decision on the Commission’s proposal to October 2019. It took ‘good note of the Commission’s recommendation to open accession negotiations’ with Albania and North Macedonia , however, ‘in light of the limited time available and the importance of the matter’, the Council committed to get back to the issue in order to reach a ‘clear and substantive decision’ no later than October 2019.
In its May 2019 Communication on EU Enlargement Policy, the European Commission recommended that the Council opens accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. This positive recommendation was based on ‘significant progress achieved’ and on the fact that ‘the conditions set unanimously by the Council in June 2018’ have been met. In fact, following the Commission’s previous positive recommendation last year in April 2018, the Council in its conclusions of 26 June 2018 ‘set out the path towards opening accession negotiations in June 2019’ for both countries. Back then, the Council recognised progress but did not immediately give the green light for opening accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia; instead it called on the Commission to assess progress in both countries in the coming year. With regard to North Macedonia, the focus had to be on judicial reforms and the fight against corruption and organised crime (also at high levels), reform concerning intelligence and security services and reform of public administration (Council Conclusions on Enlargement and Stabilisation and Association Process, June 2018). In the case of Albania, the Council called on the Commission to monitor further progress by focusing especially on the judicial reform and fight against corruption and organised crime. In addition, according to the Council, this assessment should include ‘further tangible and sustained results’ particularly on the rule of law, compliance with OSCE recommendations on elections and lastly Albania’s efforts in dealing with unfounded asylum applications in EU Member States.
A European perspective for the WB was set out for the first time in the Thessaloniki European Council of 2003. This perspective could eventually lead to membership once the Copenhagen criteria and requirements of the Stabilisation and Association Process had been met. The current Commission led by Juncker, while making it clear that no candidate country from the WB could join the EU within its mandate, tried to give an impetus to the enlargement perspective for the WB. In its 2019 Communication on EU Enlargement Policy, the Commission referred to a credible enlargement policy as a ‘geostrategic investment in peace, stability, security and economic growth in the whole of Europe’ especially seeing that the WB were in the ‘inner courtyard’ of the EU (Commissioner Hahn, press conference 18 June 2019) and can potentially be an exporter of crises. In order to maintain the momentum of its enlargement policy, in its February 2018 Communication the Commission mentioned the possibility that if sufficient progress is made, Montenegro and Serbia could be ready for membership by 2025. Yet, this was considered by the Commission itself as an ‘extremely ambitious’ perspective. At the moment, accession negotiations have been opened with Turkey, Montenegro and Serbia.
The positive recommendation by the European Commission for opening accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia came at a crucial moment for the EU and both WB countries. The recommendation by the Commission was issued a few days after the elections for the European Parliament (EP) which took place from 23-26 May 2019. In view of these elections, the Commission postponed the publication of its yearly report and recommendations so that the issue of EU enlargement would not affect its results. This clearly affected the conclusions of the GAC meeting in which Member States underlined the lack of time between the publication of the Commission’s recommendations and the GAC meeting of 18 June. For instance, the German Bundestag postponed its discussion on accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia until autumn as it had no time to do so before its summer recess. In the meantime, North Macedonia has resolved the name dispute with Greece after years of stalemate; on 17 June 2018 the prime ministers of Greece and North Macedonia signed the Prespa Agreement which brought an end to the long-standing name dispute. Albania, on the other hand, is undergoing an ambitious reform of the judiciary following constitutional amendments in July 2016. This reform is based on a re-evaluation of judges and prosecutors (vetting process) and has led inter alia to the dismissal of judges at high levels, namely the Constitutional Court and Supreme Court. At the same time, the country is sinking deeper and deeper into a political crisis in which the opposition has relinquished its parliamentary mandates under allegations of election fraud by the government in the past and has also declared its boycott of the forthcoming local elections of 30 June 2019. The President of the Republic, noting the non-participation of the opposition in the electoral process, has issued a new presidential decree annulling the date of the elections. The governing majority considers this decree in breach of presidential competences and intends to proceed with the elections. These developments reinforce existing perceptions on the fragility of institutions and may question some of the positive findings in the Commission’s report concerning the functioning of democratic institutions.
Against this background, how can one read the conclusions of the GAC and European Council of June 2019?
Firstly, these conclusions reflect the deeply political nature of the enlargement process which in return has brought about discrepancies between EU institutions (the Commission and the Council) and between sceptical Member States (the Netherlands, France, and Denmark) and the rest of the EU countries. For two consecutive years, the Commission has concluded that both countries are ready to open negotiations whereas the Council fails to give the green light, perhaps also jeopardising the credibility of the enlargement policy and conditionality. Whereas the Commission conducts a technical monitoring process, the Council’s decision making reflects concerns of Member States that may mirror domestic politics and the overall rise of populism in Europe. In any case, it must be remembered that the opening of accession talks does not mean immediate accession to the EU; accession negotiations with Croatia lasted for six years and in view of developments in Turkey, accession talks have come to an impasse and according to the June 2019 GAC conclusions ‘[…] no further chapters can be considered for opening or closing […]'.
In addition, divergences can be seen among Member States of the EU: on 11 June 2019 the Dutch Parliament voted on a motion against opening accession negotiations with Albania, whereas a similar motion was not supported for North Macedonia. President Macron has consistently taken a cautious approach vis-à-vis the WB and the enlargement policy: the French position is that the EU should take new member states only after having being reformed from the inside. On the other hand, a few days before the GAC meeting, 13 EU Member States, including Italy, Austria and all countries that joined the EU during the last three waves of enlargement with the exception of Romania and Cyprus, issued a statement in which they urged the GAC to follow the Commission’s positive recommendation.
Secondly, since the rule of law backsliding in some EU Member States, it is evident that any discussion on future enlargements or even on opening accession talks will focus even more on compliance with the values of Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union and the growing EU acquis on issues such as judicial independence (see more recently Case C‑619/18, Commission v. Poland). The rule of law regression in Poland, Hungary, and negative experiences in Romania and Bulgaria, especially concerning the judiciary, have already raised the threshold for WB candidate countries. Romania and Bulgaria, twelve years after their EU accession, are still part of the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism which is a transitional instrument for monitoring and assisting both countries in the field of judicial reform, corruption and organised crime. In its December 2018 conclusions, the Council decided that the mechanism should stay in place. These experiences within the EU make Member States more cautious and may even undermine the EU perspective of WB countries seeing that the ‘backsliding’ states turned into illiberal democracies after joining the EU.
It would in any case be regrettable if the enlargement policy were to lose its appeal in the WB; The EU’s driving force in North Macedonia in resolving the name dispute with Greece and Albania’s justice reform are examples of the impact the EU can have in the region. Countries in the region are undoubtedly fragile democracies as the political crisis in Albania shows. Yet, there is a risk that any momentum that has been created by meaningful achievements or reforms may be lost if Member States hesitate for too long in giving the green light at least for accession talks.