Perspective of EU membership important driver for progress and reconciliation in Western Balkans

Source: European Commission

Within the European Commission DG NEAR is responsible for EU actions towards EU neighbourhood countries, and countries covered by the EU enlargement process. Christian Danielsson is Director-General of DG NEAR since 2013 and has a long experience regarding EU accession, already working on this issue when posted in the ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sweden. Below his views on changes in the accession process throughout the years, what the current main issues are, how to address them and the EU’s role and means in doing so.

Interview with Christian Danielsson, Director-General of DG NEAR of the European Commission
By Gaston Moonen, Directorate of the Presidency

What the main differences are between the enlargement preparations leading to the big enlargement in 2004 and subsequent accessions?

Based on our experience from the 2004 enlargement and subsequent accessions, the Commission has introduced a new approach to accession negotiations. The new ‘fundamentals first’ approach entails prioritising reforms in key areas like the rule of law, economic governance and public administration reform. This helps the aspiring member states tackle these crucial issues early on and strengthens the overall credibility of negotiations.

The accession process today is more demanding than in the past. The introduction of opening, interim and closing benchmarks for the key rule of law chapters — in other words, formal conditions to be met to move to the next negotiations phase — -made the process more rigorous and structured. This to help the countries tackle in a more solid and systematic way the difficult challenges they face in their reform efforts.

The enlargement policy and preparations for accession are based on the same well-established criteria to join the EU.

However, nothing has changed in terms of the core principles. The enlargement policy and preparations for accession are based on the same well-established criteria to join the EU. They were defined already in 1993 at the European Council in Copenhagen and applied both to the 2004 enlargement and subsequent enlargement negotiations: having stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities; a functioning market economy; the ability to take on and implement effectively the obligations of membership. One difference in this respect is that additional conditions for membership have been set out for the Western Balkans in the stabilisation and association process, mostly relating to regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations.

What are in your view the three core tasks of DG NEAR in the current enlargement discussions with candidate and potential candidate countries?

Firstly, DG NEAR assists the countries with a perspective to join the EU in meeting the membership criteria. This means managing the bilateral relations of the Union with candidate countries and potential candidates, frontloading reforms on the rule of law, economic governance and public administration reform. Our DG also develops and implements the stabilisation and association process to prepare the Western Balkans for future membership. Secondly, DG NEAR closely monitors the progress of enlargement countries towards the EU and supports accession negotiations as required by the Council. And thirdly, we manage the bulk of the Union’s financial and technical assistance to the enlargement countries (IPA).

What would you consider the biggest challenge for the upcoming years for your DG to meet expectations from both candidate countries…and Member States and their citizens?

I think the biggest challenge in the coming years will be to help alleviate the concerns about possible future enlargements. We can do it by helping the countries to deliver on reforms and to complete their political, economic and social transformation. This is the only way to ensure citizens’ trust and confidence when it comes to the benefits of having a bigger European Union.

… ensure citizens’ trust and confidence when it comes to the benefits of having a bigger European Union.

The 2004 and 2007 enlargements were seen as an enormous leap forward for both the EU and the countries concerned. But in hindsight some scholars and also politicians involved have argued that not all countries were ready for joining in the sense of being ready for all the enlargement chapters concerned. How does the Commission ensure that accountability of what has been achieved, both by the Commission and the countries themselves, can be properly assessed by the European Parliament and the Council?

First let me stress one thing: we are not talking about admitting to the EU the enlargement countries of today — they are obviously not ready.

Enlargement can only happen once there’s solid evidence the country can respect EU values and standards, and we will not accept any shortcomings or allow shortcuts.

Enlargement can only happen once there’s solid evidence the country can respect EU values and standards, and we will not accept any shortcomings or allow shortcuts.

The principle of own merits and strict but fair conditionality is applied at all stages of the accession process. The Commission’s positions and recommendations are based on full assessment of the relevant facts and the individual merit of the countries concerned in meeting the membership criteria. At each stage of the process, the Commission’s position contributes to a discussion among the EU Member States, each of which in turn contributes its views and perspectives before drawing conclusions collectively as a Union. The European Parliament is regularly informed about the developments in the enlargement area, and its opinions and recommendations are duly taken into account in policy design and assessment of progress. One of our flagship products — the annual enlargement package- is the best example of this process. It does not gloss over shortcomings. It provides a balanced assessment of the countries’ reform efforts and an objective reference point for civil society to follow the developments and put pressure on their governments.

One of our flagship products — the annual enlargement package — […] does not gloss over shortcomings.

When reading the 2018 communication of the Commission on EU Enlargement Policy, issued in April this year, the first concerns raised relate to the rule of law — including comments on the judicial system, corruption and organised crime — fundamental rights, functioning of democratic institutions and migration issues. These appear to be issues which are mostly in the hands of candidate countries and potential candidate countries themselves. How does DG NEAR intend to influence these issues, the more since building up administrative capacity is not done overnight?

Indeed, the pace of transformation depends on the countries’ progress in implementing reforms. We continue to support and guide them, but this is in the first place their work and their responsibility.

… the pace of transformation depends on the countries’ progress in implementing reforms. […] this is in the first place their work and their responsibility.

The Commission’s Western Balkans Strategy of 6 February 2018 puts forward concrete and tailor made actions in key areas of mutual interest, ‘flagship initiatives,’ which include the rule of law and migration. DG NEAR intends to intensify efforts to guide reforms and to support the ambitious steps taken by the countries themselves in these areas. This means increased help in prioritising key issues, close monitoring of reform implementation, as well as more strategic financial and technical assistance.

One of the audit findings in the ECA meta audit on the Western Balkans (special report 21/16) and the ECA special report on EU pre-accession assistance to Turkey (special report 7/18) was that for the ‘rule of law’ projects the Commission had not applied conditions consistently. And relatively little funding had been provided in key areas, such as media freedom, public prosecution and the fight against corruption and organised crime. Last week the ECA issued a report looking into the European Commission oversight of Member States’ application of EU Law. One of the key recommendations in this recent ECA report is that the Commission needs to further strengthen its oversight of the way EU law is applied in Member States. Do you consider this oversight also a key attention point for DG NEAR vis-à-vis candidate countries?

We believe the conditionality was applied at the appropriate level to achieve the maximum impact possible, in often difficult political contexts. With regard to funding levels, you need to take into account also the absorption capacity on the ground, and that the areas you mention not always require large-scale investments but are often supported through the provision of technical assistance, hence consuming lower budgets.

We also check the real application of the law on the ground,…

The candidate countries must deliver concrete and sustainable results in the reform process and progressively apply the EU law. The Commission has been strengthening the tools to monitor this process. For example, very detailed action plans in the area of the rule of law help us better monitor and report on the implementation of the acquis in this area. We also check the real application of the law on the ground, for example by conducting case-based peer reviews. We are also helping to strengthen the capacity of civil society in the countries to monitor the application of EU law.

The EU has a long history of enlargement and is indicated on the DG NEAR website as a ‘positive sum game.’ What do you consider to be the key lessons learnt for the Commission and what is in your opinion the biggest success until now under your watch as Director-General?

One of the lessons learnt for us is the importance of deep sustainable reforms for a truly credible enlargement process for the Western Balkans. The region has still to implement fundamental reforms in crucial areas like the rule of law or economy, and must redouble efforts on reconciliation. The EU’s engagement has confirmed to be a real driver for this process. Most recently, the successful reinvigoration of the enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans through the very forward-looking Commission’s Western Balkans Strategy of 6 February 2018 and the historic EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia on 17 May 2018 have been key drivers for renewed momentum. I hope this will translate into a continued impetus for reforms in the region.

The region has still to implement fundamental reforms in crucial areas like the rule of law or economy, and must redouble efforts on reconciliation.

We have also certainly looked very carefully into the implementation of our pre-accession financial assistance for 2014–2020 (IPA II) and have reflected lessons learnt in our proposal for IPA III for 2021–2028: we need a more strategic approach to financial assistance, greater ownership from the countries and a programming that is rewarding performance and progress.

This article was first published on the August-September 2018 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.

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