The accession process must be thoroughly reformed, made merit-based – and offer credible interim goals if Western Balkan countries are to have any hope of joining the EU.
Further enlargement of the European Union in the Balkans is only possible if it is deeply transformative. Without radical improvements of institutions and the economy, no other Western Balkan country will ever join the European Union.
Currently, the EU enlargement process is not transformative. It does not inspire politicians and thousands of civil servants to make the intense efforts required to transform their countries. Frontrunners and laggards alike are trapped in a vicious cycle of low expectations and few reforms.
In recent years, North Macedonia and Albania worked hard. They believed that they were about to start accession negotiations. They had a meaningful and inspiring interim goal. Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, North Macedonia, Albania – all these countries managed to carry out difficult reforms before gaining candidate status or starting accession negotiations.
This worked because they saw their efforts as meaningful: It was clear what needed to be done; it took the country closer to the ultimate goal of membership. And it depended on the country’s own efforts.
After talks start, however, the prospect of joining disappears into the distant future. Whether a country becomes a full member will not depend on its efforts alone. It depends on the state of the EU in the distant future.
“Before any effective enlargement, we have to know how to reform ourselves,” French President Emmanuel Macron said last October, adding that, “if there is not a moment of collective awakening, we cannot bring in other members, even in five or ten years.” It is unclear whether and when this will change. It also means that after the opening of accession negotiations there is no credible goal.
Imagine for a moment that all EU members would agree to open talks with North Macedonia and Albania without any change in how accession talks are conducted. What would happen? Most likely, very little. Having worked hard over the last years, North Macedonia and Albania would soon lose momentum. Their reformers would start to feel like hamsters in a wheel, realising that whatever effort they make, they will still not get any closer to EU membership.
This is what has happened to the front-runners. Montenegro started accession talks in June 2012. The subjects discussed are divided into 33 headings, the so-called chapters. In eight years, Montenegro has met the conditions (or “closed”) three chapters. Serbia, since it started negotiations in 2014, has closed two.
According to the Commission’s assessments, between 2015 and 2019, Montenegro made no progress in 23 chapters, advanced (slightly) in nine, and was backsliding in one. At this moment, Montenegro is “well advanced” (the best grade) in zero chapters and has a “good level of preparation” in seven. At this pace, it will take Montenegro decades to meet all the criteria.
It is also striking that – across the 33 chapters – North Macedonia today stands roughly at the same level of alignment with EU standards as Montenegro. North Macedonia has not even started accession talks. It has not opened or closed any chapters. The focus on opening chapters has misled political attention. It is no indicator of progress.
Today, the EU needs to find consensus among its members to square the North Macedonia-Albania circle. But it must also reform the process, make it truly merit-based and offer a credible interim goal that inspires real change. This is possible through a reform that builds on the current system but makes four crucial changes.
First, the process would have two stages: The goal of the talks would remain full accession, but the first stage, as a meaningful interim goal, would be joining the Single Market, which covers most of the acquis and most EU policies. Joining the Single Market by 2025 is a realistic goal for the Balkan frontrunners.
Joining the Single Market by 2030 should be a realistic goal for all the Western Balkan countries. This should only depend on them. They would then enjoy the four freedoms – the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour – that Norway and Iceland enjoy today.
Second, instead of opening and closing chapters one by one, all chapters related to the Single Market would be opened at the beginning and – once conditions are met – closed all at once.
The key measure of progress would be substantive changes measured in progress reports. This requires quality road maps and checklists for each chapter, combined with regular convincing public assessments from the Commission.
Third, the rule of law would become truly central: All conditions related to democracy, rule of law and human rights would have to be fully met before any country could join the Single Market. Rule-of-law conditions would be as demanding for joining the Single Market as for full membership, and monitoring of these even stricter.
The EU needs to develop new ways for assessing key rule-of-law areas. These could include trial monitoring of selected important cases, in-depth assessments of the occurrence of corruption, the systematic monitoring of national broadcasters and in-depth assessments of parliamentary control of security services.
Fourth, if any country seriously violates basic human rights or undermines the independence of the judiciary, it should be possible to suspend the accession process with a simple majority of EU members. Suspension should have real effects, including freezing pre-accession funding. And it should also be possible to restart talks with a simple majority.
What is in it for the Western Balkans?
Carrying out the reforms needed to join the Single Market and to join the EU has been phenomenally beneficial for peripheral economies. Taking into account differences in price levels, Lithuania went from 37 per cent of the average EU GDP per capita in 1999 to 81 per cent in 2018. During the same period, Romania went from 26 to 66 per cent.
North Macedonia is today at the level of Lithuania in 1999. Bosnia and Herzegovina today is where Romania was in 1999. Countries can change. Enlargement policy can have a major impact. For this, it must be credible, merit-based and serious. It has happened before. It can happen again.
All new EU members from Eastern Europe acceded to the Single Market when they joined the EU. Austria, Finland, and Sweden became members of the Single Market first, and then – once political circumstances allowed – full EU members soon after.
All those in the Western Balkans who want their countries to transform, to benefit from decent environmental policies, to have clear rules in public procurement enforced and to look at a more prosperous future, should support this.
Membership in the Single Market is not an alternative to EU membership. It lies directly on the road to accession. And it is the only credible and meaningful way towards this goal.
Kristof Bender, Adnan Cerimagic and Gerald Knaus are all with the European Stability Initiative (ESI). More details on this proposal you find in ESI’s latest report “Hamster in the Wheel. Credibility and EU Balkan policy” and the shorter ESI newsletters “Hamster in the Wheel” and “Coup de grâce – Delors and squaring the circle – Norway in the Balkans”.