Friday, November 01, 2019

The EU must find a smarter strategy to manage enlargement. EFTA may be the way forward

French President Emmanuel Macron received a lot of criticism for his decision to block the start of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, even if also the governments of Denmark and the Netherlands were with him.

There really was no good choice: either North Macedonia would be upset, as it went as far to change its name in order to be able to enter the EU, or European citizens, wary of welcoming into the EU yet more countries with weak governance and high levels of corruption.

Balkan governments have been looking to strengthen ties with the likes of Russia, China and Turkey instead, which does not bode well in terms of embedding the rule of law and Western-style democracy over there. Serbian human rights campaigners recently warned against the roll-out of hundreds of Chinese surveillance cameras using facial recognition software, something resulting from growing ties between Serbia and China.

In North Macedonia, exiled oligarch Nikola Gruevski, who has been convicted for acts committed when he was Prime Minister, may well manage to return from Hungary, which has granted him “asylum”, and run in the snap elections which followed the collapse of the government after the EU refused to open entry talks.

What to do now?

In my view, the EU must simply be honest. It must tell countries that enjoy very little support among Europeans to be able to enter the EU that this simply won’t happen in the foreseeable future. We are talking about Turkey, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.
At the same time, the EU should offer them a closer relationship. Perhaps membership of the “European Free Trade Association” (EFTA), which truly is a loose platform to open up trade, could even be offered. The organisation shouldn’t be confused with the “European Economic Area” (EEA), to which three EFTA member states – Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein – belong. The UK could also join the non-EEA department of EFTA and it could even emerge as the leader of EFTA, thereby reinvigorating the organisation and proving that Britain wants to keep close trade ties with European countries even if it has rejected the top-down regulatory approach of EU and EEA. In this way, Turkey and Ukraine could be reassured that EFTA is no second-rate arrangement, as the UK even prefers it to EU membership. 

To offer clarity to Turkey that it will not enter the EU will further help to reassure the “Balkan six” hoping to enter the EU. Accession negotiations have already been opened with two of those, Serbia and Montenegro, while another pair, Albania and North Macedonia, are hoping – so far in vain – for this as well. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo haven’t made it to the first stage - “candidate” status- while five EU member states, including Spain, do not even recognise Kosovo yet as a country.

The fundamental issue is that there’s “enlargement fatigue” in Western Europe, so how do we go from here? One strategy could be to offer the Balkan six EFTA membership as well, as a first stepping stone to EU membership. EFTA member states' citizens enjoy freedom of movement to each other's countries, so this may need to be reviewed, realistically.

Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland shouldn’t fear this would upset their cosy arrangement with the EU, as it’s their membership of the European Economic Area which is key, not of EFTA – even if non-EU states need to be an EFTA member before being able to become an EEA member.

Apart from the prospect of EFTA membership, the EU could require that those six Western Balkan countries can only join at the same time, to give them an incentive to deepen diplomatic ties. This is already happening, regardless. In response to EU intransigence, the Prime Ministers of Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania have just signed a declaration, creating a co-operation agreement modelled on the EU’s Schengen Agreement, providing for the free travel of people, goods, capital, and services between their three connected countries. The other Balkan states have been invited to join, and the intention is to create a joint market of 18 million people. This “mini-Schengen” should become operational in 2021.

This great initiative has not been pushed by Brussels, but this is exactly the kind of arrangement the EU could promote, for example by requiring progress on it as a precondition for membership. That would also reassure suspicions, for example among North Macedonian business federations, that the initiative serves to drive the Western Balkans away from the West.

Perhaps some of these suggestions can be questioned, as for example the idea to only let Serbia enter the EU once Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina comply with the conditions, as this may demotivate Serbia. Then the lessons from the previous rounds of EU enlargement is that the prospect of EU membership can truly make a difference in improving the rule of law in candidate countries. When the big EU funds start to flow, the EU’s leverage seems to become much weaker.
There is nothing wrong with France and other vetoing accession talks if they believe that the concerned countries do not yet comply with the requirements. The problem is to make all kinds of false promises and not to have a plan B ready, to keep diplomatic ties close with Europe’s weak underbelly.  

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