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Germany’s European Council Presidency: Priorities for the Western Balkans

In this post, Andi Hoxhaj examines the future of EU policy toward the Western Balkans, arguing that Germany can do more to craft a policy that responds better to citizens’ needs

Germany’s presidency of the Council of the European Union began on July 1 under the motto “Together for Europe’s recovery”. Its programme focuses on four key areas: overcoming the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic and economic recovery; reaching a deal on the COVID-19 recovery package and the European budget for 2021-2027; the future relationship with the United Kingdom; and further topics, such as climate protection, digitalisation, the EU’s role in the world, and launching EU accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia.

Regarding the fourth topic, Germany has indicated that it wants to build on the legacy of Croatia’s Council Presidency, under which Albania and North Macedonia were given the green light to open accession talks. Indeed, German Chancellor Angela Merkel indicated in early July that launching EU accession talks with both Albania and North Macedonia is one of the priorities of Germany’s Council Presidency.

Chancellor Merkel is the main architect of the EU renewed engagement with the Western Balkans, which restarted under her foreign policy initiative “the Berlin Process” in 2014. As part of the Council Presidency, Merkel should make use of the new negotiating frameworks to make the EU’s Western Balkans policy more response to citizens’ needs. This includes better access to the EU labour and internal market, and involve the Western Balkans in the grands débats on the future of Europe. By showing that Western Balkans are not mere candidate countries, but rather crucial partners that can play a role in shaping the future of EU as aspiring member of the Union, Germany can help create more inclusive and productive cooperation with the region.

More importantly, Germany should move away from the EU de facto policy of working closely with the Western Balkans’ autocratic leaders for sake of stability. The autocrats are mainly responsible for the high level of corruption, state capture and the never-ending political crises that they create in order to downplay the real issues facing the Western Balkans, such as high unemployment and brain drain.

New negotiating frameworks for Albania and North Macedonia

On the 1st of July 2020, the European Commission presented a draft negotiating framework for Albania and North Macedonia to the Council of the European Union. The draft suggests a renewed framework, comprising six thematic clusters:

1) fundamentals; 2) internal market; 3) competitiveness and inclusive growth; 4) green agenda and sustainable connectivity; 5) resources, agriculture, and cohesion; and 6) external relations.

Germany, as the President of the Council of the European Union, will present the agreed-upon EU position in the first inter-governmental conference with each country, marking the formal start of the accession negotiations. North Macedonia is more likely to start accession talks during the Germany’s presidency of the Council of the European Union, whereas for Albania, the situation is more complex, as is detailed below.

Clarity and transparency over the pre-accession conditions for Albania

On March 25th, the Council endorsed the European Commission’s recommendations to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. However, the conclusions document indicated that the 27 member states did not fully endorse the Commission recommendation to open accession talks “sans further conditions” for Albania.

The Council conclusions document states that prior to the first intergovernmental conference, Albania must adopt electoral reforms, continue the implementation of judicial reforms (in particular ensuring the functioning of the Constitutional Court and the High Court) and finalise the establishment of the anti-corruption and organised crime specialised structures. Furthermore, the Council conclusions assert that Albania must also show a further track record in the fight against corruption and organised crime. In other words, the Council indicates that before the EU can technically launch accession talks with Albania, at least a set of 15 pre-accession conditions must be fulfilled. However, so far officials from Albania and the European Commission have downplayed and, in some cases, even dismissed the existence of the set of pre-accession conditions.

The Council has suggested that the Commission will provide a report on these issues, which will include progress regarding the track record on the set of pre-accession conditions when presenting the negotiating framework to the German Presidency of the Council. and offers a clear timetable for when these conditions will be fulfilled, and a potential date when it can officially launch the EU accession talks.

Rebuilding credibility in the Western Balkans: beyond the traditional accession procedure  

By introducing a new accession framework, the EU is hoping to overcome ‘enlargement fatigue’ and increase its geopolitical influence. This has been damaged by the EU’s failure to live up to its promises to either award visa liberalisation to Kosovo or to open accession talks with Northern Macedonia and Albania, both actions that were recommended by the Commission in the last few years. However, the accession framework proposed for Northern Macedonia, in addition to the set of pre-accession conditions for Albania, seems to be little more than the old ‘carrot and stick’ approach. This is likely to lead to further resentment and disillusionment. The 27 member states, particularly Germany, could play an instrumental role in ensuring that the process of enlargement becomes transformative by going beyond the traditional engagement with autocratic leaders for the sake of stability in the region and be more open to empower new political, social and economic changes.

The EU needs to take young political movements, civil society, academia, and independent thinkers and journalists in the Western Balkans more seriously and engage with them more directly so that they could become instrumental in fostering positive political, economic, and social changes. Currently, it is impossible for either of them to acquire the tools to challenge autocratic leaders and other powerful actors in the Western Balkans. Due to the stalled enlargement process, the EU has held social movements in the Western Balkans at bay. Quietly, the general population has lost hope that their socio-economic situation will improve. An alarming indication is the latest Balkan Barometer survey, conducted by the Regional Cooperation Council, which found out that as many as 83% of Albanians want to leave the country, and 49% of respondents in the survey suggested they are actively applying for vacancies abroad. A similar picture was also found in North Macedonia, where a full 41% of respondents wish to leave the country.

The survey also found that 60% of respondents throughout the six countries of the Western Balkans understood that ‘European integration’ means the opportunity to emigrate to the European Union or study in the EU, rather than new opportunities at home or in the region. Although autocrats in the Western Balkans claim to implement rule of law and democratisation reforms, these autocrats have merely built a façade democracy. While regular elections are held, no real efforts are made to strengthen the legislative and judicial branches or civil society. Furthermore, independent media struggle to conduct oversight.

Germany may promote more commitment towards the Western Balkans, beyond opening the accession talks with Northern Macedonia and Albania. First, this could include access to EU labour and internal market, more affordable access to the EU’s higher education institutions and professional and vocational training courses. This could be a crucial benefit for the younger population and an incentive to respond to the dire economic conditions at home. Second, Germany could steer the EU to acknowledge the Western Balkans as real partners, rather than just mere candidate countries, and invite the Western Balkans to play a larger role in EU policies. The region could be included in the grands débats on the future of Europe as aspiring members of the EU. They could also be a part of the discussion of the new Strategic Agenda 2019-2024 that was adopted by the European Council and the upcoming biannual “Conference on the Future of Europe”.

Although Germany’s main priority as Council President will be in dealing with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the economic recovery of the Union, it should also use this opportunity to improve the overall enlargement policy and make it more inclusive and responsive to the citizens of the Western Balkans.

Dr Andi Hoxhaj is a teaching fellow in law at the University of Warwick, and a researcher on the EU law and policy, corruptionrule of law and the Western Balkans. He is an author of a new book ‘The EU Anti-Corruption Report: A Reflexive Governance Approach’.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.