To ensure the process remains effective and transparent, the European Commission needs to work hard to ensure conditionality, consistency and credibility remain at the heart of the accession process.

Brussels does not exist. Okay, perhaps it does in a form. As a rather nice capital of a rather small country in Europe, where quite a lot of people from other EU countries live and work. But ‘Brussels’ as it often appears in the discourse and the media does not. In the Netherlands, the image of ‘Brussels’ as a de-personified entity is often evoked by lazy journalists and sceptic politicians. Lazy journalists who think their readers won’t be able to handle mention of a separate Parliament, Commission and Council. Politicians who think their voters won’t be able to handle the truth that a small country like the Netherlands on its own is not equipped anymore to control the internationalising economy.

In their discourse, ‘Brussels’ is an evil entity that wants to gather as much power as it can, to use it to swindle the poor unsuspecting Dutch out of their money and jobs and to undermine the pride we have in our once powerful little country. Once being a century or four in the past. In accession countries on the Western Balkans, the image of ‘Brussels’ is somewhat similar. It is an evil entity that has hatched a megalomaniac master plan to snatch any recently gained sovereignty away from Balkan countries, to impose its neoliberal rule and to force its progressive values on the unsuspecting population.

A myth busted

As a European politician working in Brussels, I am always baffled by the amount of power and long-term vision that people seem to think the EU has. I am almost sorry to say that EU politicians have too little power, too little cooperation and too little agreement amongst themselves to even be able to hatch a master plan stretching across decades, let alone implement it. The image of ‘Brussels’ as a unified entity with a master plan is a myth.

Resistors to populism

‘Brussels’ consists of three different institutions, populated by actual people, chosen or appointed, that change with each election. First and foremost for accession countries, there’s the European Commission.

The Commission has civil servants on the ground in each of these countries. It tells accession countries what the benchmarks are and what needs to be done to comply with them, it gathers information about compliance and implementation, and it reports to those in the EU who take decisions about next steps in the accession process. The Commission doesn’t formally take the decisions on whether a country may take the next step in the accession process, but it wields power as the source of information that these decisions are based on. Their advice is of vital importance. I’ve always said that if people and politicians in accession countries choose to listen to anyone, they should choose to listen to the European Commission. Not because they are without fault, they certainly are not. But because they are the least political of the EU institutions, the least influenced by opinion polls and populism.

A pro-enlargement European Parliament

Then there is the European Parliament, of which I am a Member. We talk a lot about the enlargement process and all accession countries, we do a report on each country each year, we visit as often as we can, we talk to every journalist willing to put a microphone under our noses, we send stern letters to governments of accession countries, we maintain a network with civil society. And we have almost no decision-making power at all. We in the Parliament can decide that negotiations should be opened with Macedonia until we’re blue in the face, but the EU treaties give us no power to do anything about it. The only things we do get to co-decide on are visa liberalisation and the final decision on accession when a country has finished its accession process, like Croatia recently. Listening to the Parliament is usually quite nice for accession countries. The majority is pro-European and pro-enlargement. In our debates, politicians try to emphasise some of the criteria according to their political affiliation, like I tend to do with LGBT rights and women’s rights and more right-wing colleagues do with organised crime and corruption. But on the whole, we as a Parliament will applaud any step forward, however tiny.

A council without a plan

The European Parliament can shame and blame, can shape the debate, but it cannot take the decisions. That power lies with the Council. And unfortunately, the Council is the most political and least European of the European institutions. Far from having a concerted master plan, the Council has no concerted or long-term plan at all. The people populating the Council dealing with enlargement are the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the EU countries. They spend most of their days debating with their national parliaments, talking to their national press and checking the national polls. Only once a month at most they come to Brussels to debate foreign policy with their counterparts in other EU countries.

While Commission and Parliament stay roughly the same for five years, a new face pops up in the ever changing group of ministers each time there are national elections somewhere. At the moment, these are mostly right-wing Christian-democrat or right-wing liberal ministers. They cater to what they think their national electorate wants to hear. Tough against corruption, hesitant about visa liberalisation, keep Turkey out. They have to decide unanimously, so each of them has veto power. Greece can block Macedonia, Cyprus can block Turkey, Slovenia can block Croatia.

And five countries can block recognition of Kosovo, for reasons that have nothing at all to do with Kosovo. People and politicians in accession countries listening to Council need to always keep in mind that they are not the real audience of the remarks by ministers. The real audience are the voters back home. A clear example is visa liberalisation. The Dutch government was the one demanding an ’emergency brake’ in case there would be too many misguided asylum seekers, and is now one of the most vocal countries in the debate on possible suspension of visa free travel for Serbia and Macedonia. Very strange, considering that the Netherlands has had all of eleven asylum requests from Balkan citizens last year. But not so strange when considering that the right-wing government thinks this will gain votes with their sceptic electorate.

The three C’s

I believe that conditionality, consistency and credibility are the keys to a successful accession process. The process should be as technical as possible: these are the conditions for the next step, it is up to the accession country to fulfil them, and once they are fulfilled, the next step is taken. The ball should always be kept in the court of the accession country’s authorities, leaving only them responsible for reform and progress. A BiH politician lately said with great disdain that ‘the European Commission is populated by bureaucrats’. I personally thought that was a great compliment. The Commission should be populated by bureaucrats that say ‘these are the conditions, fulfil them and you may count on the next step’, without being influenced by undue political considerations.

The Commission tries to work that way, but is undermined from three sides. The first is Council. Council undermines conditionality by taking political decisions, not criteria based ones. Macedonia can fulfil conditions for the opening of negotiations all it likes, but the name issue that has hardly anything to do with the accession process is dragged into it and blocks its progress. Serbia on the other hand can leave a few criteria unfulfilled in the visa liberalisation process, but got it anyway in the first tranche to support pro-EU forces in the country.

The need for transparency

The second undermining force is the governments of accession countries. They tend to be less than open about what exactly the conditions for a next step are and what is expected of them. Croatia kept the benchmarks confidential until the negotiation process was fully over, even though there was no reason to do so. No negotiation position would have been endangered by being open, since the benchmarks once decided are non-negotiable. For NGOs and media, let alone citizens, it is very difficult to find out what their government should do to reform and align their legislation to EU laws. Therefore many conditions, benchmarks and criteria seem to suddenly pop up and are seen as new and unfair, undermining the trust that citizens could have in the accession process. I am often confronted with that feeling in Balkan countries. In Serbia for instance, many people thought their country could immediately accede once Mladic was caught. Both the government and the European Commission had done far too little to properly explain all the steps and conditions before accession. It is no wonder that people feel let down and betrayed by both when their expectations are managed so badly.

Separating bureaucrats & diplomats

The third undermining force is the European Commission itself. In my view, the Commission mixes enlargement and diplomacy far too much. It tries to solve diplomatic issues by making them part of the accession process or by having the same people manage the accession process and conduct diplomatic relations. While on the surface it might seem a good idea to use enlargement for a diplomatic breakthrough, in the longer run it undermines the credibility of the process.

Diplomacy and the accession process are different in nature. Diplomacy is about give and take, compromise, equal sides trying to settle differences by negotiation. The accession process is about criteria that need to be met, no negotiation possible, about the EU being clear on what needs to be done, no compromise possible. By mixing the two, both become political and country-specific. Politicians in accession countries get the idea that accession criteria are soft and open for compromise. Citizens get the idea that decisions are taken ad-hoc and arbitrarily. The Council of Ministers is reinforced in its idea that it’s okay to take political decisions instead of criteria-based ones.

This does not mean that diplomatic problems shouldn’t be solved. The Macedonian name issue needs solving, the Bosnian constitution needs overhauling, the Albanian parliament needs reforming, the status of Kosovo needs settling. But issues that are not directly part of the accession criteria need a different arena to solve them. In the European Parliament, the Greens have therefore introduced the idea of an EU arbitration mechanism, where bilateral issues can be solved outside of other processes, for instance the name issue, but also issues like Neum and Ploce if they are not solved before the accession of Croatia.

These issues should not be allowed to poison the accession process and hinder much needed reform. Furthermore, the European Commission has not only Commissioner Füle for enlargement, but also High Representative Ashton for foreign affairs. He should manage the criteria-based accession process, she should be involved in diplomatic negotiations. With Kosovo, this does happen now. The dialogue with Serbia is led by Ashton, not Füle. But chances are that Serbia will be rewarded for cooperation in the dialogue by Füle with a next step in accession, disregarding the other criteria that are yet to be met by Serbia.

Accession criteria as sole judge

There is of course in many cases a link between diplomatic or political issues and accession criteria. Good neighbourly relations are a Copenhagen criterion, and so the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo is needed to fulfil that criterion. Effective administration and functioning democratic institutions are a Copenhagen criterion, and so constitutional reform in BiH is needed to fulfil that criterion. But while solving a political problem may be a prerequisite for fulfilling the criteria to take the next step, it should not replace those criteria. It too often does now. Serbia proposed an aggressive resolution on Kosovo in the UN, in itself unrelated to accession, and was rewarded with a next step in accession for taking it off the table. BiH politicians manage to form a government and vote a budget, in itself unrelated to accession, and moves are made to close OHR without all conditions met.

This confusing of diplomacy and enlargement is making the accession process too country-specific and arbitrary, leaving too much space for emotion and manipulation, ultimately undermining the credibility of the process. I believe that the next accession step may always be a carrot, but never the bait. Bait is not actual nourishment; it is a means to a different end. Using a next step as bait means starting your reasoning from the country. A reasoning along the lines of ‘What needs to be done in BiH to turn it into a copy of an EU member state as much as possible, and which next step in accession can we use to make sure that is done?’. A carrot is actual healthy food, it is an end in itself. Using a next step as a carrot means starting your reasoning from the EU Treaty, legislation and values. A reasoning along the lines of ‘How can we assist BiH in its wish to become an EU member state, that is ready to handle all the obligations and rights that go along with membership?’.

Flaws and all

After all that, let me conclude by saying that I am a staunch supporter of the enlargement process, flaws and all. Even though it doesn’t always seem that way, the pace of progress and reform in all Balkan countries is a miracle, especially for vulnerable groups. There is a very long way still to go, but I’m in awe when I meet women’s rights groups, LGBT activists, Roma people, environmental action groups and other civil organisations and see how their position has improved within a decade or less. They have taken what the accession process has to offer with both hands and are taking leaps forward. I want to concentrate on ways to make the enlargement process as useful as possible for those who want progress, who want to become EU citizens because of the finest thing that the EU has to offer in my view; its fundamental rights.

This article was originally published in December 2012 by the Bosnia & Herzegovina Office of the Heinrich Boell Stiftung, and more recently in the newsletter of the Balkan Green Network. 

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