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Risky tactics and bad examples: EU enlargement decisions postponed

17 December 2012
Rosa Balfour (Senior Adviser to EPC on Europe in the World)



The EU has just averted the risk of winning and squandering the Nobel Peace Prize within the same week. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the European Union in recognition of peace achieved through integration and enlargement. Last week, the EU was called upon to answer three questions on its further enlargement: should it give Serbia a date to start accession negotiations? Should Albania become a candidate country? Should the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia start accession negotiations?

It is not easy to answer these questions. The current enlargement process requires striking a delicate balance between showing the muscle to exhort these countries to overcome past disputes and transform into modern democracies, and making the right gestures to reassure them that the conditions demanded are not just alibis to keep them out of the club and that the EU does in fact remain committed to enlargement. This is the stick and the carrot so often elaborated upon. Usually the EU tries a combination of the two just to keep the process moving.

This time, the short answers to the three questions were: no, no, and no. Had these answers not been accompanied by a fifteen-page acrobatically written document reiterating an overall commitment to the region, the EU would indeed have squandered its peace prize. The conclusions of the General Affairs Council of 11 December, confirmed by the European Council on 13-14 December, ought to represent a case study for students of discourse analysis, where language and style hide member states’ bitterly defended political positions. From a less academic standpoint, the document tells a story that needs some explanation.

First of all, what decisions were really taken?

There were no surprises with regard to Serbia. The language is clear and the message has been sent to Belgrade for the past year: no date to open accession talks until ‘visible and sustainable improvements’, ‘irreversible progress’ and the implementation ‘in good faith’ of agreements in the dialogue with Prishtina are apparent. However, even if dates were avoided (according to some reports, dates were taken out of an initial draft of the Council conclusions), Serbia’s position will be reviewed soon. In spring 2013 a joint report by the European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President on the state of the dialogue will be presented to the Council, which will decide upon it during the Irish Presidency – just as the German election campaign will be heating up. For reasons of ‘symmetry’ (no comment), Kosovo received a similar lack of commitment on timeframes. On the basis of the report, the Council will decide on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Kosovo. So there might be decisions in June.

Tirana got what was to be expected. The country was commended for its ability to break out of the stalemate of past years, and once the Commission judges that Albania has made the required progress on reforming the judiciary, public administration and parliamentary rules of procedure, the Council will reassess the situation. Unlike Serbia, where indicative timeframes were referred to, Albania’s status is in the fuzzy zone. But given the forthcoming parliamentary elections next year and the track record of previous ones, it comes as no surprise that the Council did not want to raise any expectations regarding dates.

But the linguistic acrobatics reached their peak with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The Commission had hoped that the success of the High Level Accession Dialogue (HLAD) would create a momentum in which the country could start accession talks and solve the name dispute with Greece in parallel. But last week proved yet again that the name issue is insurmountable. France, Bulgaria and Greece teamed up to ensure that Skopje does not move forward. Following the recent deterioration of Bulgarian-Macedonian relations over interpretations of history, historical figures, language and ethnicity, Sofia too managed to include its own complaints about the country in the Council conclusions. So another report by the Commission due in spring 2013 will assess all three requirements: the HLAD, relations with Bulgaria, and the name dispute. If positive, the Council will ask the Commission to make ‘without delay’ all preparations to start accession talks.

What bigger story do these conclusions tell us?

The conclusions reflect long-fought negotiations which had kept EU ambassadors working late during the previous week. The Union’s commitment to the Balkans remains, and is probably shared by the majority of its member states. The language and the carefully-chosen words were such that the conclusions could be spun positively. Indeed, the governments of the countries in question were not disappointed with the conclusions – some were even satisfied. The convoluted terminology regarding timeframes is interpretable. On the one hand, there is an avoidance of making commitments with clear dates; on the other, much will be done during the next Presidency and there are plenty of suggestions that once the decisions have been made, the process will move swiftly towards their implementation.

But in concrete terms, the EU is delaying decisions until the danger zone just before the German elections. Should the Council not be satisfied with the results achieved in the region by June, there is a real risk of another year-long delay in making further steps in the enlargement process. This summer it will be doubly important to demonstrate to the region that the doors will not close once Croatia has joined in July 2013 – the suspicion that this may happen is already very strong.

The conclusions also show that however much the Commission may try to drive forward the enlargement process, the risks of it being stalled by member states are higher than ever before. Germany comes out as the key decision-making player, while Britain – even if still championing the enlargement process in principle – prefers to follow in Berlin’s mould. Germany is committed to the region but at the same time supports a tough position on conditionality which could give Berlin a good chance of persuading other countries, such as the Netherlands, which are increasingly sceptical of enlargement. France remains as ambivalent as ever over enlargement and does not seem to hesitate to take advantage of bilateral disputes or issues to delay the overall process.

The most preoccupying element that emerged from the negotiations which led to these conclusions is how easily member states fall into the trap of making the whole enlargement process hostage to parochial bilateral disputes and bullying, macho politics. The EU demands that the acceding member states acquire a way of dealing with problematic issues which is pragmatic, entails some ‘give and take’ manageable through interdependence and integration, and which reduces the risk of conflict taking a bad turn.

Yet, it is the EU itself which is setting the bad example. In the region Croatia has pledged not to use its future position as a member state to stall the accession of its neighbours, but current EU countries are quite simply not following Croatia’s example. How can one then expect Serbia to behave cordially towards Kosovo, if and when the time comes for the enlarged EU to accept Kosovo into its fold? How can one expect the nationalisms and populisms which animate those same disputes to soften their tones if the EU tolerates them and is incapable of finding solutions to them internally?

Enlargement is not just about finding the tactics to get the right balance between carrots and sticks. It also requires some ‘good faith’ on the part of the EU and its member states if it wants to be credible, set a good example, and make sure it continues to deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.

Rosa Balfour is a Senior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC) in Brussels.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author.

Risky tactics and bad examples: EU enlargement decisions postponed