France unveils new model EU enlargement

Source: EU Observer

Western Balkan countries should still become EU members, but via a new, step-by-step process, France has said.

The “gradual association” idea was the basis for a “reformed approach to the [EU] accession process”, set out in an informal, six-page paper circulated to EU diplomats by France on Friday (15 November) and seen by EUobserver.

EU enlargement currently works by opening accession negotiations with candidate countries, which cover 35 separate areas or “chapters” of European law.

Once candidates agree to make the necessary reforms to fall into line, they are admitted as full members and gain access to European programmes, such as science grants, and to tens of billions of euros a year in EU subsidies.

But in the new French model, they would make the reforms in a seven-step process, gaining access to selected EU programmes and funds along the way, before arriving at “full accession”.

The seven steps are: (i) rule of law and fundamental rights; (ii) education and research; (iii) employment and social affairs; (iv) financial affairs; (v) the single market, agriculture, and fish; (vi) foreign affairs; and (vii) “others”.

When candidates graduated step one, they would gain access to Eurojust, the EU judicial cooperation club in The Hague, for instance, France said.

Step two would see them gain access to the so-called Horizon 2020 science programme and let Balkan universities take part in the Erasmus student exchange scheme, the French paper added .

Step four could see them join the EU banking union, while step five would “make candidate countries eligible for structural funds” – the multi-billion euro subsidies.

“Completion of negotiations corresponding to each step taken by the country would open the possibility to participate in corresponding EU programmes, to be associated to certain relevant sectoral policies, and, where appropriate, to benefit from certain targeted funding,” the French paper said.

But the “final objective remains full and entire accession”, it added.

EU affairs ministers will hold initial talks on the French ideas in Brussels on Tuesday.

They would have to agree to any changes by unanimity.

But if things went well, then European Commission ought to flesh out the ideas with more detailed legal documents by January 2020, France noted.

And that might mean the EU reforms could still be put in place in time for a summit with Western Balkan leaders in Zagreb in May.

Veto shocker

The new proposals come after French president Emmanuel Macron caused shock last month by vetoing the opening of accession talks with North Macedonia, even though it had even changed its name to fall in line with EU demands.

The veto prompted concern that France intended to halt EU expansion in the Western Balkans.

It also prompted German and US warnings on potential instability or in a spike in Chinese and Russian influence in the region.

But the French paper “reaffirmed” the EU’s “unequivocal support for the European perspective of Western Balkan countries”.

Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia “belonged to Europe by their history, their culture, and their geography,” France said.

It did not mention Turkey, which is also an EU candidate, but whose talks were de facto suspended three years to go after a failed coup in Ankara led to mass-scale repression.

The French paper justified Macron’s veto by saying the past 20 years of EU intervention in the Western Balkans had prompted “too slow” progress and “insufficient benefits” for its people.

But the gradual accession model, and the step-up in EU funding, would bring “concrete benefits”, it said.

And those, in turn, would “stem the migratory movements [out of the Western Balkans to Europe] which pose difficulties for both sides” and “reduce unfavourable external influence [from Russia and China],” it added.

New rigour

France also warned that backsliding on democracy and rule of law would come at a price, however.

It called for “rigorous conditions” and “reversibility” of EU benefits if things went wrong.

“Criteria for passage from one step to another will be precisely defined, allowing for verification of their effective and lasting … implementation,” France noted.

The criteria on the rule of law step could be modelled on the EU’s existing “justice scoreboard”, while the the financial affairs one could be based on the “European semester”, France said, referring to two existing EU blueprints on judicial and fiscal compliance.

The Council of Europe in Strasbourg, a European rights watchdog, could also furnish criteria on constitutional probity and anti-money laundering compliance, France added.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, a wealthy nations’ club in Paris, and the World bank in Washington could also supply criteria, it noted.

But “specific governance” on enlargement steps would be left in the hands of the EU commission and member states, who would “regularly follow … progress made” and “examine” candidates’ performance, France said.

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