A binary concept of membership has become obsolete for a region which has been on the path to the EU for two decades already. A group of think tanks have now come up with a proposal to unpack the membership process and allow gradual membership in stages, write Milena Lazarevic and Michael Emerson.
Milena Lazarevic is Program Director at the European Policy Center (CEP Belgrade). Michael Emerson is the Principal Associate Researcher and the Center for European Policy Studies (CEPS).
It is obvious that no one is happy with the current status quo in the Western Balkans. As it stands, countries in the region are unlikely to make sudden and substantial progress towards full membership.
In order to break the deadlock, it is necessary to move away from certain features of the precise membership model used for previous EU enlargements, while keeping full membership as the final objective.
The idea proposed by the network of think tanks of the Western Balkans, the Thinking for Europe Network (TEN), and based in Brussels Center for European Policy Studies (CEPS) is that the accession process should be broken down into functional / sectoral and institutional elements allowing partial and gradual accession in stages, based on the level of progress achieved under strict monitoring and conditionality.
The details and terms of these arrangements would vary between the Council of the EU, the European Commission and the European Parliament, as well as between EU advisory bodies, agencies and programs – in some cases a simple dialogue structured policy, in others observer status and fuller participation.
In fact, the tangible benefits for citizens and the possibilities for gradual integration into EU policies and programs – including possible observer status in relevant EU meetings on issues of considerable importance for them – are already underlined in the revised enlargement methodology, as a means of increasing the political appeal of the process for the region.
However, these ideas remained largely unanswered following its adoption. Therefore, as it stands, the main political and socio-economic benefits of the accession process are unlikely to come until the time of accession.
The key instruments for the implementation of this proposal would be, on the one hand, the adoption by the EU of a legally precise text defining the progressive stages of the differentiated accession process, and, on the other hand, legally binding agreements with the candidate States marking the passage from stage to stage.
Precedents for such a type of integration already exist, with the European Monetary Union and the Schengen area being the key examples, but further efforts need to be invested in the full development of models for specific stages of accession and the conditionalities that accompany them.
In order to apply differentiated integration correctly to the enlargement process, decisions to advance access to certain rights, or, where appropriate, to withdraw them, should be based on a more detailed, coherent and quantifiable methodology to assess the performance of the different “chapters” in relation to better specified conditionalities.
Civil society in the region has frequently warned that the existing rule of law negotiating framework is ineffective when it comes to tackling issues of state capture and democratic retreat in the Western Balkans.
By equipping the phased approach to membership with an improved methodology, this would not only ensure a good understanding of deeper governance issues, but also reduce the risks of undermining the functioning of the EU through veto powers. in the hands of more fragile democracies.
Improvements in this regard can also help to make the process more credible and convincing in the eyes of all EU Member States.
What better way to start dealing with these proposals than to put them on the agenda of the Conference on the Future of Europe.