By Erwan Fouéré
Reform efforts by the seven countries seeking to join the European Union have been inconsistent, with serious backsliding in some and only modest progress in others, according to the European Commission’s annual enlargement reports. (The exception is Albania, which has undertaken significant efforts in judicial reform.)
The most negative assessments concern Macedonia, which is still in the throes of political crisis, with “concerns about state capture affecting the functioning of democratic institutions”, and Turkey, which continues to suffer an erosion of democratic standards and “further backsliding (…) as regards freedom of expression and in the functioning of the judiciary”. The recent arrests of opposition Kurdish MPs, adding to the large numbers of people already incarcerated, undermines whatever hope there is of an imminent return to democratic standards.
The Commission’s reaction to all these breaches by the enlargement countries has been far too weak. Rather, it has focused on underlining how the EU’s enlargement strategy has contributed to stability in the broader region. But if fundamental and systemic violations of the rule of law and the erosion of democratic standards are not effectively addressed, any stability achieved is not sustainable.
The increasing trend towards authoritarianism, the undermining of democratic values, the erosion of fundamental freedoms (not least the freedom of expression) and increased corruption have become the accepted norm in a number of countries. The lack of strong parliamentary traditions and a judicial system that is often controlled by the ruling party, such as in Macedonia, renders the checks and balances present in a functioning democracy very weak or non-existent. With media invariably controlled by the ruling elites in these countries, and civil society organisations subject to harassment and intimidation, governments are free to do as they please and are not held to account for their actions. Unacceptably high levels of unemployment, affecting the younger generation in particular, have fuelled discontent and swelled the numbers of citizens seeking to emigrate to the EU or further afield.
Some would argue that the whole point of the EU’s enlargement strategy is to deal with all these issues and ensure that the enlargement countries remain on the path of reform. That it has not been able to do so raises the question of the effectiveness of the EU’s current strategy, and what more can be done to give it greater relevance at a time when the EU integration process itself has been under severe strain.
There is no doubt that numerous crises that have rocked the very foundations of the EU recently continue to undermine the EU’s credibility and its capacity to live up to its commitments. Whether it is the migration crisis or the wave of populist and xenophobic rhetoric sweeping Europe, the EU has shown a collective lack of backbone and sense of responsibility. Were it not for the courageous stand taken by Chancellor Merkel and a few other leaders during the migrant crisis, for example, the EU would have lost all credibility, not to mention the sense of openness and spirit of generosity that had been the distinguishing features of the European integration project since its foundation.
Despite being the EU’s most successful foreign policy in the decades leading up to the successful incorporation of ten new member states in 2004, its enlargement agenda has become an unwitting victim of the current malaise. Not only has it been on the receiving end of criticisms from populist Eurosceptic parties, but even mainstream political parties have found it politically expedient to downplay the benefits of the EU’s enlargement policy for fear of alienating sceptical voters. Attacks on media freedom and on civil society, such as those in Hungary and Poland, have also greatly weakened the EU’s transformative power and leverage vis-à-vis candidate countries. Those same countries are not averse to issuing statements in support of the very parties that have been singled out in the Commission’s reports for undermining the rule of law and democratic reforms: Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto stated that he expected citizens to support Macedonia’s ruling party (VMRO-DPMNE) in Parliamentary elections on December 11th, and Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz spoke at a VMRO-DPMNE election rally in Macedonia itself on November 27th.
The Commission has, to its credit, tried to strengthen the enlargement narrative by streamlining the annual country reports and making them more user friendly. The new format aims to ensure greater transparency in the assessment process and to allow countries to be more directly compared. The reports prepared for each country thus provide a very useful snapshot of the state of play in each of the reform areas.
Unfortunately, the Commission intends to move the adoption of the annual Enlargement package from its traditional autumn slot to the spring, arguing this would allow reporting on calendar years in sync with the Economic Reform Programme cycle. While these reasons may be perfectly legitimate, the result is likely to be a reduction in the pressure facing the enlargement countries. It also gives the impression, true or false, that the EU’s enlargement agenda is being further downgraded in its list of priorities.
Even if the quality of the annual reports has improved, it is far from enough to achieve the desired objectives. There needs to be a much more forceful and determined approach in the follow-up and monitoring process after each report, particularly with those governments that manifestly do not take criticism seriously. The Commission should speak out when governments clearly violate their commitments to reform, be it in the area of media freedom or the independence of the judiciary. Its message should be loud and clear, and should not be confined to the annual reports. Pressure for reforms needs to be consistent and maintained throughout the year.
The EU should use all the tools at its disposal, such as cutting off EU development and pre-accession assistance, or suspending scheduled meetings, to make it clear to recalcitrant governments that being a candidate to join the EU entails responsibilities and obligations that must be respected.
There should also be more systematic support for civil society organisations to enhance the element of government accountability. This is all the more important during political crises that require the EU to facilitate political dialogue between the political parties. Failure to include civil society will only perpetuate the crises and further deepen mistrust between government and society at large. Similarly, governments should be held accountable if they fail to properly consult with civil society in policy and decision making; this should be a specific condition of the accession process.
A more creative and determined approach from the EU would help to make the enlargement process more meaningful and tangible for the countries concerned, and more relevant for citizens.
Erwan Fouéré is Associate Senior Research Fellow at CEPS.
For the complete version of the Commentary please see https://www.ceps.eu/publications/eu%E2%80%99senlargement-strategy-%E2%80%93-it-working