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A Nobel Peace Prize to revive the EU enlargement process


Editorial by Steven Blockmans

The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2012 to the European Union for its contribution over the last six decades “to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”. This is a marvellous honour and a much-needed boost for an integration project that is currently suffering grave economic difficulties and considerable political and social unrest. The decision of the Nobel Committee could be interpreted as a signal to breathe new life into the EU enlargement agenda, indisputably the Union's peace project *par excellence*.

What started out as a post-World War II project to pacify old-time rivals France and Germany, has over the last 60 years pushed the boundaries of the zone of peace outwards so as to embrace almost the entire continent. It has seen the incorporation of post-dictatorial Greece, Spain and Portugal, and the re-unification with post-communist Central and Eastern Europe.

But the accession of Bulgaria and Romania has taken the *Schwung* out of the EU enlargement process and cast doubt on the strength of its transformative power. Accession talks with Turkey have gradually ground to a halt, in spite of the Commission's efforts to launch a positive agenda. For Bosnia-Herzegovina, pre-accession conditionality also fails to inspire; successive ‘progress reports' by the European Commission read as ‘stagnation reports'. And for the fourth year running, the Council has been held back by Greece in taking a decision on opening accession negotiations with (the Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia until the name dispute is resolved.

The latter is emblematic of a ‘creeping nationalisation' of the enlargement process, i.e. the imposition of bilateral conditions by individual member states upon candidate countries. Other cases in point are the conditions set by Slovenia upon Croatia over, among others, the demarcation of maritime borders, and the demands of the UK and the Netherlands on Iceland to reimburse savings lost during its banking crisis.

The sovereign debt crisis and the threat of financial collapse of some EU member states have triggered a fierce debate about the economic, social and political *finalite *of the Union and have reduced the appetite for further enlargement. These problems have also fuelled debate in the UK about its future position in the EU and have strengthened the resolve of countries like Switzerland and – ironically – Norway to stay outside of the Union.

Aside from the brief burst of enthusiasm that will likely accompany Croatia's imminent accession, ‘enlargement fatigue' within the EU is here to stay for a good while longer, especially in light of widely held perceptions that most of the (potential) candidate countries suffer from the small size of their economies, weak administrations and corrupt law-enforcement authorities. Indeed, it is not surprising that large swathes of the EU's general public are puzzled by the Commission's suggestion to open negotiations on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Kosovo, on whose status EU member states maintain different views, the granting of candidate country status to Serbia, a country whose political leaders' antics are reminiscent of a dark past, and the opening of accession negotiations with Montenegro, a country with a long tradition of corruption and organised crime.

Adding to this gloomy picture is the ‘pre-accession fatigue' of the candidate countries themselves. With the image of the EU as a latter-day Eldorado fading, the political leaders of these countries are asking themselves what they are getting themselves into. Some have even declared the Union's current woes “the end of the EU dream”. Whereas EU membership is still their strategic objective, it is to be primarily understood in the sense that the adoption of EU values and standards is good for the modernisation of their countries. Yet, the EU's demands for continuous reform have begun to ring hollow, especially in the ears of political leaders who are asking themselves whether playing the card of (distant) EU accession will yield sufficient returns in the next general elections. Fake compliance with EU conditionality is often the result. Keeping up appearances may be politically and economically more advantageous in the short term, but certainly detrimental to countries' progress in the longer run. Bulgaria and Romania are cases in point. Five years since it replaced pre-accession conditionality, the post-accession ‘Cooperation and Verification Mechanism' has not produced the desired results with regard to the reform of the judiciary and the fight against corruption and organized crime.

In spite of the rhetoric by the European Commission (pushed by some EU member states) to pursue an ‘AAA' enlargement policy (‘strict but fair', ‘first the red lines then the red carpets', ‘first the performance then the applause'), lessons drawn from previous enlargement waves have yet to be implemented in practice. The country that is next in line for accession seems to be suffering from the same illness as those that entered the Union in 2007, albeit to a lesser degree: Croatia's reform of the judiciary continues to be subject to ongoing monitoring in the period between conclusion and full ratification of the Accession Treaty. It is common knowledge that Chapters 23 (rule of law and human rights) and 24 (justice, freedom and security) were (again) opened too late in the accession negotiation process. Seen from this perspective, the decision to start the accession talks with Montenegro with these most difficult chapters should be welcomed. The introduction of benchmarks in accession negotiation procedures and a greater focus on the performance track record (implementation and enforcement of approximated laws) should overcome some of the current woes from which EU enlargement conditionality is suffering.

Presenting the 2012 enlargement package, Commissioner Stefan Fule said: "Our recommendations place the rule of law firmly at the centre of the accession process. To create a more stable and prosperous Europe, momentum needs to be maintained both for the merit-based enlargement process on the EU side and for reforms on the ground in the enlargement countries".

However, a major flaw of accession conditionality has been the vagueness with which the EU has fleshed out some of the key pre-accession criteria. This is particularly evident for the criterion of political stability: what exactly are the criteria on stability of institutions, democratic governance and rule of law? As far as the ‘rule of law' is concerned, there is hardly any firm *acquis* to establish whether the criterion has been met. The EU mainly relies on Council of Europe conventions, Strasbourg jurisprudence and reports from the Venice Commission. The Commission's renewed focus on the rule of law as one of the central narratives in the enlargement strategy posits that good governance is not about rubber-stamping laws but about establishing a performance track record. Arguably, this concerns only one aspect of political stability.

The interpretation of what the economic pre-accession criterion entails fares much better. Yet, whereas the definition of what constitutes a market economy is clear, the Commission's push for structural reforms in this area appears too soft. Moreover, here too, many negotiating benchmarks are set by individual member states in order to protect their own industries and markets. From the EU's perspective, one may wonder to what extent these bilaterally imposed conditions undermine the negotiating mandate of the European Commission. For (potential) candidate countries, however, the list of conditions is long and seemingly non-exhaustive.

Finally and most tellingly, it is unclear what is meant by the ‘absorption capacity' of the EU. Does the final Copenhagen criterion concern institutional aspects of the EU, budgetary aspects, the maintenance of a high level of competitiveness all over the Union, geopolitical interest of the EU and/or public acceptance in the member states?

If its enlargement policy is not to degenerate into a farce, then the EU should refrain from offering diluted forms of candidate status, such as the conditional promise extended to Albania in the strategy adopted on October 10th. Similarly, the EU should resist calls to lower the bar in accession negotiations so as not to lose candidate countries in the process (e.g. by compromising on Chapter 3 on financial services). The Commission needs to find new ways to consolidate the enlargement agenda, gain full support of the member states for its implementation and assure a consistent application of the pre-accession requirements. Arguably, more time, money and expertise are needed to pursue the vocation recognised by the Nobel Committee.


CEPS Senior Research Fellow and Head of Unit

CEPS European Neighbourhood Watch. Issue 87

№11(71), 2012

№11(71), 2012