Illustration by Hannah Robinson

Less than a week after Brexit, the EU Commission released a paper on the new enlargement strategy for the Western Balkans. Since 2013 and the accession of Croatia, there have been no further enlargement of the EU. The new strategy aims at reviving the EU ambition for the six EU candidates – North Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and potentially Kosovo. Through this, the EU would grow to represent 18 million more people. Following the issues with the EU enlargement process, as raised by France, that I discussed in my last article, it is clear that the EU wants the enlargement process to be more transparent, effective and credible.

The current requirements for becoming an EU member include stable and democratic institutions, a liberal market economy and willingness to adopt EU customs and practices.

The EU Commission President, Ursula van der Leyen, twitted on the 5th of February saying the new strategy is a “dynamic plan paving the way for opening accession talks” to North Macedonia and Albania. She also underlined that EU enlargement is a “win-win” situation in which both the Balkan candidates and the EU will gain from the accession of the EU candidates.

The first important area for aspirational Member States to focus on is increasing credibility. Leaders of candidate countries must show their commitment in implementing the reforms needed for EU membership. In return, the EU promises that successful candidates will move forward to the next stage of accession. It is a will to be fairer to the candidate countries which have implemented the reforms that were needed from their side. For example, Macedonia changed to North Macedonia in 2019 to solve its conflict with Greece on the country’s name, which was the main barrier to its EU accession. Nonetheless, the beginning of accession talks were still refused to the country in October.

There is also emphasise on the need for a stronger political steer, meaning more political and policy dialogues between the EU and EU candidates. The enlargement process is also set to become more dynamic: the enlargement chapters will be organised into six clusters: “fundamentals”, “internal market”, “competitiveness and inclusive growth”, “green agenda and sustainable connectivity”, “resources, agriculture and cohesion” and “external relations”. These newly labelled categories allow stronger focus on the core sectors that aspiring member states need to reformed before accession can become a possibility. 

Lastly, both EU members and Balkan candidates have highlighted the need for greater predictability and clarity in the enlargement process. I would argue that the EU should give greater clarity on what is expected from the candidates as well as the consequences of (lack of) progress.

Through this, progress could lead to further integration in the EU policies, programmes and common market and, second, increased funding and investments. Lack of progress could mean the withdrawal of funding or closer integration benefits and the suspension of negotiations on certain chapters.

The new system has been put in place to avoid more disappointment for the EU candidates. It promises the acceleration of the accession process as long as the candidates do what is required from their side. The Council is meeting again in Spring 2020 to vote on the beginning of accession talks for North Macedonia and Albania. This will indicate if the EU actually wants the talks to start or if their intentions are just to keep some kind of influence on the Balkan countries. Would this new strategy lead to a different outcome than October?