Enlargement delayed. A New Commission without an Enlargement Commissioner?

Back in July, the newly designated President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker noted that “The EU needs to take a break from enlargement” Now, he seems to put this understanding of enlargement into practice by dropping the Enlargement portfolio in the Commission (this report is yet unconfirmed). This would be the first Commission without an enlargement portfolio since 1999 when Günter Verheugen took up the job. Even the Santer commission (1995-1999) had Hans van den Broek focusing particularly Central and Eastern Europe. Without a Commissioner at the table, enlargement is likely to slip further down the list of EU priorities. It would confirm the worry I expressed back in March that the EU risks ‘forgetting enlargement’. http://www.suedosteuropa.uni-graz.at/biepag/node/51

Juncker’s plan from July in regard to enlargement is a bit misleading. Even without ‘taking a break’ there will be no enlargement in the coming five years, at least if the current approach is kept, as Montenegro and Serbia only recently began talks on accession. Thus, it is unclear from his plan whether he is just stating the obvious, i.e. it is technically unlikely/impossible to have enlargement in the coming years or if he is suggesting that enlargement should be further slowed down. The plan argues that “my Presidency of the Commission, ongoing negotiations will continue, and notably the Western Balkans will need to keep a European perspective”, but it leaves the option open whether new negotiations will be started and whether the EU will undertake an effort to resolve the issues precluding countries from moving towards accession talks.

If it turns out to be true, not having a commission on enlargement suggests that the new Commission might further slowdown enlargement. The main argument given by Junker is honest, it is less about the readiness of the countries in the region, but rather about the readiness of the EU. However, here lies the problem. For one, it is a very self-absorbed understanding of enlargement and the we-first-have-to-absorb-the-new-argument is inward looking. Second, the fact that the EU needs to deal with past enlargements (which is misleading considering that the main problems in past years economically at least stemmed from ‘old’ or ‘older’ member states) now, should not stop the enlargement process. Exactly because there will not be enlargement in the next five years if the current pace is kept up, means that the process should continue at full speed, because in the best case this would prepare members in the next commission, i.e. a wave of enlargement in seven or eight year from now. However, if signals from the new commission suggest a further slowing down, the countries of the Western Balkans will not be ready to join when the EU is ready to accept them.

Just a week ago, Western Balkan leaders went to the Berlin oracle for a conference that was much anticipated and turn-out to be a disappointment. Rather than signaling a new boost of energy for enlargement, it confirmed rather the low level of priority accorded to the region.

The meeting was brief and offered little in terms of substance. Rather than setting a new framework or launching new ideas, it appeared just another stop in the long list of regular meetings of Western Balkan and EU leaders from Dubrovnik to Cavtat, from Bled to Berlin.

The final declaration does include a clear German commitment for enlargement and annual conferences over the next four years to move reforms forward. The emphasis on rule of law, regional cooperation and economic reform are no surprise and largely coincide with the commission agenda. However, the key blockages in the region, from Macedonia to Bosnia are not mentioned and there are no suggestion on how give the accession process more urgency.

Thus, the new commission without a commissioner for enlargement, if confirmed, risks not just being a priority of Junker as Commission president, but broader reflection of the approach from the member states, including Germany.

Notes from Ditchley


I returned a few ago from a very interesting conference at Ditchley on the Western Balkans. The discussions with policy makers and analysts did not raise any radical new ideas, but it was good opportunity to take the temperature on thinking about and from the region. It was also a lesson in bad metaphors. Many felt that carrots and sticks are not working, but theories why differed: People in the Balkans prefer meat to carrots or the carrot is actually a stick. Either way, the days of carrots and sticks seems to be over (nobody mentioned that the metaphor implies that the person in question is either a horse or a donkey).

There was broad consensus that overall things were heading in the right direction, but there were a number of warnings: many (but not all) thought that the state of democracy & rule of law and lack of deep rooted reforms in the economy will continue to be a source of difficulties in the years to come. There was a bit of a divide between a number of Western policy makers who felt that the EU and its member states were doing enough to bring the countries of the region into the EU and that it was up to political elites to make an extra effort and a number of analysts who thought the EU should do more and make the membership perspective more realistic. A specific suggestion was for the EU to begin accession talks with all countries of the region as soon as possible rather than wait for each country on their own to fulfill the specific conditions. Once talks begin–the symbolic year of 2014 was mentioned as start date–the negotiation process will force countries to shape up and carry out reforms in a manner that is unrealistic prior to the beginning of talks. It seemed clear that such a scenario is unrealistic at the moment with a many member states skeptical about enlargement and afraid (although unjustifiably so–see Turkey) that accession talks would lead to membership ‘on the sneak’. A problem that has become more pronounced in recent years is the use of individual member states to use the accession process to set additional conditions. This has made the accession process less predictable as the Commission cannot guarantee the next step in the process as individual countries might block whatever comes next for unexpected reasons that have little to do with accession. Of course, this also undermines the credibility of EU accession. The current approach of the Commission to launch dialogues with countries without accession talks has been a good way forward but without beefing up the DG Enlargement this cannot be expanded more broadly.

The most encouraging signals came over the Serbia-Kosovo talks which are expected to lead to some tangible conclusions before the summer and when the current window of opportunity might close. On the other hand, Bosnia was much discussed, but there were few new ideas on how to help the country out of its current deadlock.

I found it encouraging that there is a clear sense that incrementalism is the way forward, there is not going to be a big bang, but rather small steps that will change the region and resolve the open questions. For this to be successful, one needs to overcome the dynamics of what one participants aptly called the EU member states pretending to enlarge and elites in the Western Balkans pretending to reform.

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