What Future for EU Enlargement in Pandemic Times?

11th December 2020 – CEP’s programme director, Milena Lazarevic, participated in the online discussion; “What Future for EU Enlargement in Pandemic Times”? organised by the Aspen Institute. The online discussion was also participated by Florian Bieber, a professor for Southeastern Europe at the University of Graz, Majlinda Bregu, the Secretary-General, Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), Ambassador Susanne Schutz, the Director for South-Eastern Europe and the discussion was moderated by Adelheid Wolfl, South Eastern Europe correspondent for Der Standard, based in Sarajevo.

Excluding the devastating consequences brought on by the pandemic, there are vital political divisions in many countries in Europe and within the European Union (EU). Additionally, we have seen an ambitious German Presidency that was met with a special set of economic, political and social challenges set forth this year.

Assessing the German Presidency thus far, Ambassador Susanne Schutz, emphasised that since the presidency started on the 1st of July, Western Balkans (WB) was high on its agenda, particularly looking at the Council decision for Albania and North Macedonia to commence the negotiations for the EU membership. Thus, there have been positive measures takes regarding the EU Enlargement process in the Western Balkans, even during the pandemic.

Confronted with the possibility of a second wave, the countries in the Western Balkans have suffered a serious economic impact as can be seen by the substantial drop in GDP for many Western Balkan countries. Looking at the economic and political consequences, Genoveva Ruiz Calavera expressed that it has allowed the region and the EU to work together in an unprecedented manner. The EU has introduced the first package of €3.3 billion in April accompanied by the weekly deliveries of health protection equipment and joint procurement initiatives. Calavera also emphasized that due to there being a high possibility of a third wave, the EU has set forth a package on the 6th October, the Economic and Investment Plan (EIP), which is comprised of €9 billion donor grants funding.

Referring to and evaluating the EIP, Milena Lazarevic indicated thatthe plan is unique as it is a single portfolio that is meant for an economic long-term recovery of the region. However, Lazarevic specified that the EIP is part of the the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA). Nonetheless, considering that the EIP excludes Turkey, means that the countries in the region will get a much more sizeable monetary support. Furthermore, Lazarevic expressed her doubts on whether the EIP will be enough to close the development gap in the region and the danger it might pose in attracting actors that offer loans at a much more politically convenient rate, which lures the political establishments away from the EU.

Additionally, she drew attention to the necessity of holding political leaders in the region accountable and for it to be done publicly and “not behind closed doors”. Especially this year, the annual EC report mentioned that the government is “[…] breaching its legislation”, which is a serious statement to make. Lastly, in answering the question on the issue of alignment, Lazarevic pointed out that the concern here is not only the influence of Russia, but China as well, which is why Serbia did not follow up on the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) statements.

With the endorsement of the Common Regional Market (CRM) at the Sofia Summit, Majlinda Bregu stated that the region needs to take concrete steps and move forward as one common single market, otherwise it will be impossible to have big investors approaching the region. The market reflects the post-pandemic recovery in the Balkans, that will be economically, highly beneficial. The way to succeed in the establishment of the market is on the politicians and the local stakeholders. When it comes to the short-term assistance to the region the attention will be focused on financing the public health services and ensuring the countries in the region can buy the vaccine for COVID-19. Nonetheless, according to Bregu, all the help from the EU will not be enough to close the financing gap left by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Until recently, North Macedonia’s path to EU membership seemed optimistic, until Bulgaria’s VETO, which was attributed to the unresolved historical issues between the two countries. Florian Bieber said that Bulgaria’s VETO is evidence of how fragile the accession process, as it gives an example to other member states to abuse their power. If there is no change in the way the accession process is managed from the EU side delivering membership and not being blocked on multiple points, but also changing the whole perception of the EU region, which is no longer seen as merit-based. This also deflects the transformative power of the EU enlargement process. Can the creation of a WB regional market be an alternative to the EU membership? According to Bieber: “Regional cooperation is great, but it is by no means an alternative to the EU membership because all the indications are that it would economically have a nice but not a dramatic impact.”

Furthermore, he highlighted that the enlargement process is a way to fix the issues within the rule of law and democracy and if it becomes a game of waiting for 20 years in the eyes of the citizens, then it will discourage the leaders in the region to engage in serious reforms in rule of law. The issue of the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue is that any permanent settlement between the two countries requires a strong incentive, which is the EU membership. However, even if the two countries agree to full normalisation of relations, it might not stop an EU member state to intervene and halt the accession process.

In conclusion, for the enlargement process to be successful, it is expected of the WB countries to exhibit cooperation, specifically in creating the regional common market- which would make the region more susceptible to much larger EU investments. Arguably, the credibility of the EU enlargement process has suffered, when looking at the case of Bulgaria and North Macedonia. The danger is that even if the membership criteria are met, the possibility of a countries’ accession being blocked is real. Moreover, the politicization between the EU and WB relations can be seen through the EU’s hesitation to publicly rebuke the countries’ democracy and rule of law problems. How will the EU move forward in returning the faith of the accession process to the citizens of the WB countries? Will the creation of the common regional market be successful? These are the questions the EU and WB countries will have to answer in the coming years.