By Jordy Benooit
Get ready, it’s happening! But don’t hold your breath.
The declaration made by Charles Michel, President of the European Council, on August 28, 2023, that "enlargement is no longer a dream" (1) represents a significant development in the longstanding effort to integrate the Western Balkan countries into the European Union. This region has been a priority for EU integration since 2003 (2), yet the current accession process has proven ineffective over the past two decades. Are we about to write a new chapter on European integration, or are we adding another paragraph to our list of broken commitments?
Currently, there are eight candidate countries, with Turkey being the oldest candidate since 1999, followed by several Western Balkan countries between 2004 and 2014 (3). The EU has failed to adequately prepare both itself and these candidate countries for their accession. The accession of the Western Balkans, or lack thereof, has exposed the flaws in the current accession process. The heavy reliance on the political will from the current Member States has subjected these countries to a long and intrusive process of converting national laws and institutions to EU standards which has, so far, not yielded significant benefits for the countries involved. This seemingly unending road to nowhere has left long term candidates demotivated. Some have begun backsliding on the progress made so far, others are flirting with closer ties to non-EU actors, making further progress uncertain. Now that other countries have applied and been granted candidate status, and the political will for EU enlargement is gaining momentum, it would be wise to reconsider the way we structure the accession process.
One of the main lessons we should acknowledge from the failed Western Balkan accessions is that the current demands for national adaptations are excessive for some countries. Some just don’t possess the political capital needed to comprehensively ‘reform’ themselves in line with EU expectations. However, this doesn’t mean that progress towards EU standards is impossible. But then again, if the end goal remains unattainable and the only reward is at the finish line, why would these countries continue to invest political capital in such reform efforts? A new approach that should be reconsidered is the solution proposed by French president Emmanuel Macron: a multi-tiered Europe. Macron envisions an EU with various institutional levels, including a periphery, semi-periphery and an almost federal core (4). This approach to accession offers two main advantages. Firstly, individual Member States are free to integrate further at their own pace. Secondly, the EU can divide the negotiation chapters amongst the different tiers, in doing so narrowing the scope of negotiation talks and phasing in the benefits of full EU membership, continuously rewarding efforts towards further reform and integration. However, contrary to Macron’s vision these tiers should be seen as transitional phases towards full accession, not a potential end goal.
A multi-tiered accession process that introduces membership requirements and benefits gradually would provide candidate countries with tangible incentives in each phase. This would enable national politicians to advocate for further integration by demonstrating the positive effects to their citizens, thus continually feeding into the momentum for further reform and integration. A suitable first tier could be accession to the European Economic Area (EEA). Historical precedent exists for this type of gradual integration, as demonstrated by the 1995 accessions when Austria, Finland, and Sweden joined the EEA one year prior to joining the EU proper (5). Entry into the EEA as a formal first tier would facilitate economic integration with the wider EEA and directly benefit the citizens of the candidate member. The anticipated integration in this tier could further be supported by granting conditional access to the European Regional Development Fund and/or the Cohesion Fund. Naturally, this would require reinforcing the budget allocated to these funds, especially in the upcoming Multiannual Financial Framework for the period 2028-2034.
If we are seriously committed to integrating the current candidate countries into the EU, we should provide them with every opportunity to do so. It’s essential that we acknowledge that not all candidate countries possess the capacity for the level of reform currently required. Phasing in EU membership through a clearly defined multi-tiered accession process provides perfect balance between requirements and benefits. Ideally, the gradual introduction of membership benefits would make the candidate member reorient its national psyche towards further integration, making more intrusive negotiation chapters more feasible in later tiers. Ultimately, the successful accession of the candidate members will depend on our ability to convince them that we will allow them to do so. Whether or not this will be the case, I invite you to conclude that for yourself.
(1) Lili Bayer, “Charles Michel: Get ready by 2030 to enlarge EU,” POLITICO, August 28, 2023, https://www.politico.eu/article/european-council-president-charles-michel-eu-enlargement-by-2030/
(2) European Commission, EU-Western Balkans Summit Thessaloniki, 21 June 2003, C/03/163, Thessaloniki, June 21, 2003.
(3) European Union, “Joining the EU,” europa.eu, accessed on September 13, 2023, https://european-union.europa.eu/principles-countries-history/joining-eu_en
(4) Christopher Pitchers, “What do we know about Macron’s idea for a two-tier Europe?,” euronews, May 11, 2022, https://www.euronews.com/my-europe/2022/05/11/what-do-we-know-about-macron-s-idea-for-a-two-tier-europe#:~:text=He%20laid%20out%20his%20vision,without%20officially%20joining%20the%20EU.
(5) European Parliament, “Briefing No 32: The European Economic Area (EEA) and the enlargement of the European Union,” European Parliament, November 17, 1998, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/enlargement/briefings/32a2_en.htm