For the first time in the recent history of EU enlargement the year ended without conclusions for the candidate countries. This is one of the biggest news of the December European Council, held on 15 December in Brussels. Traditionally, every December, the leaders of the member states view the progress of candidates and reach conclusions which, usually, overlap with the conclusions of the European Commission in its progress reports. However, 2016 marked the beginning of the end of the enlargement process as we have known it. Latest developments, especially in Turkey, clearly show that the European Union has lost its transformative power and appeal and is no longer able to play the role of a lever for the transition to democracy and market economy in the candidate countries.
In fact, the process of weakening of the European transformative power has been going on for some time. For at least five years expansion was virtually stagnant. After the last enlargement in 2007, when the Union was joined by the unprepared Bulgaria and Romania, the process practically stopped. Croatia managed to sneak in at the last minute in 2013, but this happened in a period when the temperature of the enlargement process was already close to zero. Opening of chapters with Turkey was virtually frozen because of disagreement between the two sides about Cyprus and the lack of unity within the EU on whether Turkey, indeed, has a future as a full member in Christian Europe. Macedonia also spent more than 10 years in the freezer because of the veto of Greece. And the rest are moving so slowly along the now non-inspiring negotiation process that actually run in circles and even go backward.
In the last years of the mandate of the Commission of Jose Manuel Barroso (Portugal, EPP), there was an attempt made to revive the process by the then EU Commissioner for Enlargement Štefan Füle (Czech Republic, Socialists and Democrats), but success was symbolic. Reports each year had identical content. The most common words in the texts were "limited progress" which is synonymous with no progress, especially in the most important for transformation to democracy and the rule of law indicators - public administration, judiciary, fight against corruption and organised crime, treatment of minorities, and human rights. Amid the overall bleak picture, Füle’s attempt to inject new blood into enlargement had a short-lived effect. The EC never did dare to take more radical steps in the process, and for member states the topic was not on the agenda amid the debt crisis, then the refugee crisis,and now the severe geopolitical crisis.
Therefore, it was somehow natural to expect the statement of Barroso’s successor, Jean-Claude Juncker (Luxembourg, EPP), that within his term (2014 to 2019) there will be no further enlargement. The portfolio of commissioner for enlargement transformed into a post in charge of enlargement negotiations. However, though, there have been some changes in reporting progress. This year, it is noteworthy that the language in the reports is much sharper, problems now are called by their real names, though not all, but even half-revealed the picture is pretty bleak.
The candidate countries - further away from EU
The most discouraging part of the report is the recognition by the Commission that several countries in the region show varying degrees of state capture. “In recent years, all countries have strengthened their frameworks for tackling corruption and organised crime. New institutions – such as the Montenegrin Anti-Corruption Agency – have been established and substantial efforts were deployed to foster specialisation, both in the police and within the judiciary. Despite these efforts, several countries in the region continue to show clear symptoms and various degrees of state capture”, says in the report. By state capture it is meant that companies, institutions, or influential persons are using illegal practises to exert influence and form policy in their best interest. They take advantage of the legal environment and the economy to follow their goals.
And another important and extremely unpleasant, although not at all new conclusion: “The declared political commitment to fight corruption has not translated sufficiently into concrete results”. Progress in building a functioning and independent judiciary remains weak, as most countries have shown problems with efficiency and lack of independence and accountability. The pressure on judges and prosecutors is common throughout the region. The report shows that in the worst condition in this sense are Turkey (after the coup) and Macedonia.
Another unpleasant conclusion is the media situation. “Freedom of expression and media remains a particular concern in most enlargement countries, albeit to different degrees. The lack of progress in this area, already observed over the past two years, has persisted and, in some cases, intensified. The situation with regard to freedom of expression has deteriorated further significantly in Turkey, in particular through arrests and prosecution of journalists on terrorism charges and closure of a wide range of media outlets”, is written in the general part of the report. In countries of the Western Balkans there is evidence of political intervention in the work of public media, non-transparent financing of media and continued threats against journalists, goes the EC’s assessment this year.
Democracy is hobbled at the level of parliaments too, as the report is noting that the functioning of democratic institutions remains a major challenge in many candidate countries. "The central role of national parliaments for the democracy needs to be embedded in the political culture", is the recommendation of the European Commission, which notes that measures taken in Turkey following the prevented coup attempt in July raise many questions, such as the lifting of immunity off a huge number of members of the Turkish Parliament. In the Western Balkans, the functioning of parliaments has often been accompanied by boycotts. The most severe is the case of Macedonia, but there were similar boycotts in Kosovo as well. Parliamentary control over governments is weak or totally absent, often resorting to emergency procedures for adopting legislation.
Moreover, one of the tools of democracy - elections - is also showing flaws. According to the report, elections continue to be viewed as an opportunity to ensure political control over the administration, including institutions, which are independent by nature.
Economically, the situation in the countries of the enlargement process this year is slightly better. Economic growth was stronger, investments intensified, and the number of jobs has increased. However, youth unemployment is still alarmingly high, infrastructure and education systems are not well. The fiscal positions of many of the candidate countries are deteriorating. EC clearly says that the investment climate in many candidate countries is adversely affected by the continuing weakness of the rule of law and there are signs of state capture, especially regarding the independent and effective judicial systems, unequal application of competition rules, poor public finance management, and frequent changes of permits and licenses regimes.
A serious shortcoming of the Western Balkans is seen within their corporate governance frameworks, small and fragmented markets, unfinished privatisation and limited integration of regional trade.
Enlargement is not what it used to be
Prior to 2004, enlargement was done in a different geopolitical context. It was a purely internal process flowing in already allocated territories. With the exception of the Greek case, enlargement up to 2004 was undoubtedly successful. Countries, which had experienced military dictatorships, were able to transform and stand firmly on their feet. What united the countries on the left side of the Iron Curtain were common values and the common enemy. With the fall of the Berlin Wall began the romantic period of the EU when the Union opened itself to integrate all those countries caught up against their will in the Soviet sphere of influence, believing that democracy and liberalism will only multiply.
This approach has completely underestimated the many pitfalls hidden in societies ruled by a communist dictatorship. These pitfalls are currently sabotaging the EU - erosion of democracy in Hungary and Poland, failure of attempts to plant it in Bulgaria. When one reads the reports on the Western Balkan countries, one feels like they are reading about Bulgaria and on 1 January it marked its 10th anniversary in the EU. Those left in the enlargement process are the most problematic countries. The EU, however, turns out to be completely unable to solve their problems. Moreover, more and more often it becomes involved in them, something which it is also quite unprepared for. And the geopolitical tension exerts pressure over the EU to compromise on its fundamentals.
The most problematic country in the process is Turkey, which seems completely lost to the EU. This year's report reviews its progress in two parts - before the attempted coup and after. The Commission document states that EU-Turkey relations have faced the same challenges before July 15, but after it the situation has deteriorated dramatically. Turkey has gone backwards significantly in terms of fundamental rights, freedom of expression and functioning of the judiciary. There is deterioration of the security situation. Even before the assassination attempt parliament was working on a busy schedule to implement the "ambitious" government action plan for 2016, in which, however, key legislative initiatives were not in compliance with European standards.
There are also steps backwards regarding civil service and human resources management, especially after the attempted coup. The EC expresses serious concerns about gender-based violence, discrimination, hate speech against minorities, hate crimes and violations of human rights of people from the LGBTI community. The business environment also deteriorated due to targeted actions against critical media and businessmen. The quality of education is also poor, reports the European Commission.
It was namely Turkey that was the main reason behind the enlargement process being virtually frozen. At the EU General Affairs Council, when preparing the conclusions for the December summit, Austria blocked the adoption of conclusions on enlargement because it insisted that the current negotiations with Turkey be frozen. Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák, whose country presided the Council of Ministers in the second half of 2016, expressed disappointment with the lack of consensus on the conclusions. “We attach great importance to the credibility of the enlargement process and we are stressing that this is a two-way street. It’s clear to understand that the enlargement process is not about giving gifts to the participating countries but it’s really about hard and credible work that benefits both sides”, he stated at a press conference following the end of a very intensive meeting.
It was declared by the Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister Meglena Kuneva as "one of the most dramatic Councils we have attended." Meglena Kuneva was the chief negotiator during the accession of Bulgaria to the EU, and then became the first Bulgarian commissioner (consumer protection). According to her, it was very hard to find a compromise on the wording, whose purpose was to send two signals. The first is about the political values that hold Europe together and the second is that the door of negotiations should stay open. Meglena Kuneva also said that for Bulgaria it is economically and geopolitically beneficial that the enlargement continues.
Due to lack of consensus there were no conclusions, but the Slovak Presidency published the draft anyways, in which an especially serious concern is expressed about the continuing backward motion regarding the independence and functioning of the judiciary, as well as in the sphere of freedom of speech. “Particularly worrying are the restrictions and measures targeting journalists, academics, and human rights defenders, as well as frequent and disproportionate bans of media sites and social media”, is said in the statement of the Slovak Presidency.
Montenegro is the state, which is the least problematic, although this year it was the arena of a heavy geopolitical clash. It is said about it in the EU that it is the most advanced, but, actually, the country marks little progress in key areas. The EC recognises that the new legal framework to increase the independence, accountability and professionalism of the judiciary, as well as the Code of Conduct has not yet been fully implemented. Corruption prevails in many areas and remains a serious problem. It is pointed out that despite some steps taken, there are no concrete results. Special attention is paid to organised crime, where a very small number of detected suspicious bank transactions are reported.
Same as other countries in the process, Montenegro, too, has made no progress on freedom of expression. In 2015, the building of a commercial medium was partially destroyed in a bomb blast, several journalists were physically and verbally attacked and threatened. There is no progress in the investigation of cases of attacks on journalists.
Serbia was the other country because of which the enlargement process stalled. It shows similar problems as Montenegro, but in addition to that Serbia has an important geopolitical significance, as it attempts to walk holding both Russia and the EU under one arm. Corruption remains prevalent and is a serious problem. There is no progress in improving the freedom of expression. All these look like minor problems at the background of tension between Serbia and Croatia, which was duly noted in the EC report and the statement of the Slovak Presidency. It is these relationships, which caused Croatia to block the opening of Chapter 26 (Education and Culture) of the negotiation process with Serbia. On 13 December, Serbia opened only two, instead of the expected three chapters, but this turned into a huge drama.
Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić had come especially for the occasion in Brussels and expected to send a strong domestic and foreign policy message of Serbian success. Outraged by the veto he left Brussels and cancelled all his appearances in the Belgian capital, blaming it on Croatia. Zagreb protested against the opening and preliminary closure of Chapter 26, which concerns education, as it believes that Serbia does not fulfil its commitments to provide textbooks and learning materials for the Croatian minority in Serbia. Bulgaria also had remarks but claims that it has not blocked the chapter.
Deputy Prime Minister Meglena Kuneva explained that Serbia had requested the opening and closing of Chapter 26. "We agree, but the Serbian Ministry of Education is planning reforms in this sector and we want to know what those reforms are. So, if we do know and are dully notified by the Serbian government what their plans are after closing the chapter, we would be able to give a very fast and adequate opinion. In this case we, too, need more time", she explained. Replying to euinside’s question whether it was possible that under the circumstances Serbia really was not ready to open and preliminary close Chapter 26, Serbian European Integration Minister Jadranka Joksimović, visibly enraged by the situation, vehemently denied the possibility that Serbia might have not been ready.
The EC also declared that Serbia had met all conditions for opening and closing the chapter, which does not prevent member states from having objections. The moment Bulgaria receives the necessary information, Meglena Kuneva assured that everything will go on, which made it clear that there was indeed some sort of a condition. From the statements of Meglena Kuneva it became clear that Bulgaria is hiding behind the Croatian veto. Croatian Foreign Minister Davor Ivo Stier also said that there was a need for additional information. He called not to dramatise. "It is normal that within work groups additional information is looked for. There was no surprise", he said.
In Serbia, however, the news was met in a very hostile manner. Bulgaria was barely mentioned, even though its objections were identical to the Croatian ones. There was constant talk of honour and dignity, while actually it is about commitments. The behaviour of the Serbian leadership poses a very serious question about the politicisation of the fulfilment of criteria and whether the EU is ready to compromise with criteria for geopolitical purposes. Something that has always cost the Union dearly in the long run.
The EU was not prepared for this situation, although the problems have been known long ago. Croatia kept raising the issue of the Croatian minority throughout the year. Since the Council does not want further complications, especially given how Serbia is dancing on thin ice with the EU and Russia, all reproaches were addressed to Croatia, whose leadership also did not help much to show that Croatia is a constructive participant in the negotiation process and is not using it to solve petty domestic and internal party problems. This placed the Union in a very difficult situation, drawing it into an endless regional conflict and making it an accomplice in its not-solving. In the end, just before Christmas, there was a happy ending of another Serbian-Croatian drama.
On December 23, in Belgrade, an annex was signed to the agreement on textbooks, regulating the issue of Croatian demands. The signing was attended by the ambassadors of Bulgaria, Croatia and the EU. The Croatian top diplomat, Davor Ivo Stier, announced that Commissioner Johannes Hahn had committed personally to monitoring all Serbian commitments under this chapter and Croatia will monitor their performance through chapter 23 as well, which will be closed at the very end of the negotiation process. Zagreb was satisfied with the solution and lifted its reservation. Now all that remains is that the next Council presidency, which has begun on 1 January (Malta) organises an intergovernmental conference at which chapter 26 will be opened. The outcome shows very clearly what the problem is and that when approached without politicisation it can be resolved in the interest of the most affected, namely minorities. Just two weeks and a lot of emotions (mostly in Belgrade) were needed to solve the problem
In its statement, the Slovak Presidency calls on Serbia to treat national minorities with no discrimination, including in the spheres of education and minority languages, access to media and religious services. This is verbatim the request of Croatia, and also of Bulgaria. The Presidency believes that the main priority of Serbia should be to ensure unimpeded freedom of expression and freedom of the media. Serbia is reminded that it must cooperate fully with The Hague war crimes tribunal as well as align its foreign policy with that of the Union. This is a euphemism for imposing sanctions on Russia for invading Crimea and is something that Serbia will not do anytime soon, judging by the signals coming from Belgrade.
Alas, there is no mention in either the EC report or the statement of the Presidency of the fact that more and more often there are calls by governing politicians in Serbia for the rehabilitation of Slobodan Milošević.
Until recently, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić boasted that there were no Eurosceptic political parties in the Serbian parliament like in the developed parts of the EU, but from 2016 there already is, and not just one. Because of them, the head of the EU Delegation in Belgrade, Michael Davenport, failed to present to the Skupština last year's EC progress report on Serbia. It will not be too much to assume that from now on EU-Serbia relations will become more complex and more difficult, and the progress of the country in terms of transformation to democracy and a market economy (as Serbia still is not) would be negligible. A recently published survey showed that Serbs still have huge sympathy for authoritarian rule. Prime Minister Vučić has the greatest approval to be their leader.
Albania is the most affected country from the blocking of the enlargement process this year as it expected a decision to start negotiations. Disappointment in Tirana is immense. After several years of severe political crisis the country is trying to come out of it and those efforts are rewarded with praise in the 2016 report, mainly because of the adoption by consensus of constitutional amendments that allow for a deep and comprehensive judicial reform and the banning of convicted persons from assuming public offices. Unlike Serbia, Montenegro and Turkey, Albania is considerably better in terms of freedom of expression.
The most problematic area for Albania is the fight against organised crime. According to the EC, the country does not hold sufficient financial investigations of organised crime groups. The number of frozen or confiscated assets acquired by illegal activity is too low. It remains a very serious problem to the EU that there is a huge number of unfounded applications for asylum in the EU countries coming from Albanian citizens.
The year was turbulent for Bosnia and Herzegovina, which comes forward as the central arena for geopolitical conflict in the Balkans. The country filed an application for EU membership this year and the Council approved the launch of technical work on drafting an opinion on the application. The situation in the country, however, is extremely delicate, especially after the referendum in September in Republika Srpska. Moreover, the EC notes that there is a rebound regarding the legal framework for civil service in the Federation because it increases the risk of politicisation. Another problem outlined in the Commission report is the existence of politically motivated threats to the judicial system by individual politicians.
According to the EC, the battle against organised crime remains a major task in the fight against infiltration of criminals in the political, legal and economic system of the country. There is no progress regarding freedom of expression. “Furthermore, the Council notes with concern the lack of progress in the freedom of expression and media and expects Bosnia and Herzegovina to intensify efforts to address this issue”, is said on the subject in the Presidency’s statement. The Council further requests that in the drafting of the opinion on BiH’s membership application, the Commission takes into account the implementation of the ruling on the Sejdić-Finci case, which long held the European perspective of BiH in the freezer of the EU.
Problems in Kosovo are the same as elsewhere in the region - political interference in the judiciary, institutions and agencies, political polarisation, failure of parliamentarism, rampant corruption. The Council of Ministers is alarmed by the continuing political crisis in the country and cases of violence in parliament.
The EC notes that Macedonia is shaken by the most serious political crisis since 2001 onward. “Democracy and rule of law have been constantly challenged, in particular due to state capture affecting the functioning of democratic institutions and key areas of society. The country suffers from a divisive political culture and a lack of capacity for compromise” is the unpleasant diagnose of the Commission. It believes that the inter-ethnic situation is fragile. A step back is noted since 2014 regarding the judicial system. The EC finally admitted that the achievements of a decade of reforms were destroyed by the current political interference in the work of the judiciary. Freedom of expression and the media situation continue to be a serious challenge for Macedonia.
No progress was made towards establishing a market economy in the country. What is curious is the statement of the Presidency regarding the former Yugoslav republic. It states that if the new government urgently tackles the long overdue reforms, that would return the country onto the European path. It is not clear whether this means that Greece is ready to lift its veto and negotiations with Macedonia can be unblocked. Similar to the Serbian case, Bulgaria’s shadow can be clearly seen behind the Greek blockade. After the end of the General Affairs Council, Deputy Prime Minister Kuneva specifically focused on Macedonia by saying that great care has been given to the reading of the opinion of the international observer mission for the elections in the country in early December, according to which they fully correspond to the standards of the Council of Europe.
"It is clear, however, that, in itself, the holding of an election is a good step towards overcoming the heavy political crisis in the country, but cannot remain the only step. What is needed is fulfilment of all political commitments – as I said in my speech – made by political leaders on the Pržino agreement, as well as implementation of the reforms. These reforms include the promise of President Georgi Ivanov about the development of good neighbourly relations, which he made in Sofia during his talks with President Plevneliev and President-elect Radev”, were the words of Meglena Kuneva.
The Presidency’s statement specifically mentions the continuation of high-level and expert-level contacts between Macedonia and Bulgaria, stressing, however, that concrete results are expected.
Candidates continue to be a source of migration to the richer parts of the EU
You can see some interesting data in the EC report. In the period 2014-2015, there was a decline of population in several countries in the process - these are Albania (2 895.0 - 2 892.3 mln.), Serbia (7 149.2 - 7 114.4 mln.), BiH (3 827.3 - 3 819.5 mln.), and Kosovo (1 804.9 - 1 772.1 mln.). The picture in education is also not too pretty. The highest number of children leaving the education system early are in Turkey. In the period 2014-2015, there was a decline, but the proportion is still high - 38.3% -36.7%. Turkey is followed on this indicator by Albania, where the percentages for 2014 and 2015 were respectively 26.0% and 21.3%. BiH is third (25.2% - 26.3%). The EU average is 11.2% early school-leavers for 2014 and 11.0% for 2015. The lowest share of early dropouts is in Montenegro - 5.1% -5.7%, followed by Serbia (8.5% -7.5%). Despite the huge number of dropouts, Turkey spends the most on education - 5.1 percent of GDP, followed by Serbia with 4.2% in 2014 and Albania with 3.3%.
The big difference between enlargement now and before is that before there was euphoria. Candidate countries coveted what Europe had to offer back then - namely freedom and prosperity - but romance quickly melted by a lengthy and winding process. Now, there is no euphoria neither within the EU nor among the candidates. There is no will for reform in the countries from the process. The reason is that in most countries leaders are in power, who are part of the problem, not the solution. The EU to this day believes that enlargement still holds the romanticism of the period after the fall of the Berlin Wall. While acknowledging that “the attractiveness of the EU in the enlargement countries has been partly affected by the economic downturn and scepticism regarding the European project”, the EC mentions in its report that “the firm prospect of EU membership, as continuously reaffirmed by all Member States, continues to drive transformation and anchor stability and security in the countries of Southeast Europe”.
A statement, which gets disproved in the same report of the Commission. Not just stagnation, but even steps back are noted in almost all countries in the process. Turkey is practically lost. Serbia is like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - sometimes with the EU, but more often with Russia. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, inter-ethnic tension is at its highest level since the end of the war there. Kosovo is failing, Macedonia - too. Many of the countries seemed ready for membership 10 years ago, and now they are powder kegs. The EU needs to urgently change its narrative and approach if it wants to keep these countries in its sphere of influence and to launch a new process of transformation. The change, however, must first start from within.
Translated by Stanimir Stoev