A new approach to EU enlargement

Briefing 11-03-2020

The Thessaloniki Summit (2003) opened the door to a European future for the Western Balkans. However, since then progress towards EU membership has been slow. The countries of the region have struggled to implement economic and political reforms, and the rule of law remains particularly problematic. The 2018 Enlargement Strategy for the Western Balkans gave new impetus to the enlargement policy, offering the six countries of the region a 'credible strategy' through enhanced EU engagement and indicating 2025 as a possible accession date. In June 2019, and again in October 2019, the Council postponed the decision to open negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, despite the positive recommendation from the European Commission and the agreement of the European Parliament. By delaying this decision, the European Union was sending an ambiguous message to the region, reducing its credibility and potentially fuelling nationalistic rhetoric, whilst opening the door to the influence of third-country powers, in particular China and Russia. These problems have sparked a debate which has led to a fundamental re-think of the EU's enlargement policy. In February 2020, European Enlargement Commissioner, Olivér Várhelyi, announced a revised methodology. The new approach aims to strengthen the process. It improves tools to push reforms forward, notably in the areas of the rule of law and the economy. It makes the accession negotiations more credible, more predictable, more dynamic and guided by a stronger political steer. The candidate countries need to deliver on the reforms they promised and the EU needs to deliver when they do so. The criteria will be made clearer and more concise on what is required. Dynamism also means that related issues will be negotiated together in clusters. This can speed up the process. However, if there is backtracking, the process can go backwards with chapters reopened and the level of negotiations scaled back. The Commission's new proposals also envisage further integration of Western Balkan countries into EU policies, programmes and markets, which would deliver some of the benefits of EU membership even before accession. These proposed changes, together with the updated report of the Commission on Albania and North Macedonia pave the way for a decision of the Council, on opening accession negotiations with these two countries, before the EU-Western Balkans summit, to be held in May 2020 in Zagreb, Croatia.