David McAllister MEP: Moving the EU enlargement forward – 20 years since the Thessaloniki Declaration
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David McAllister MEP: Moving the EU enlargement forward – 20 years since the Thessaloniki Declaration

The 2003 Thessaloniki Declaration recognised the European perspective of the Western Balkans and set the stage for their integration into the European Union. While progress has been made in the region, challenges remain across political, economic, and judicial reforms. To move forward, enhanced cooperation and support or reforms are essential. The European Union plays a crucial role in triggering the change, providing assistance and maintaining clear messaging and conditionality. The accession countries must demonstrate a genuine political will and commitment to reforms. Public support and transparency are vital for the progress. The discussion on ’unfreezing’ European Union enlargement includes recent suggestions for a more conditional and flexible accession process. We must prioritise an ongoing dialogue and open communication. The 20-year anniversary of the Thessaloniki Declaration offers an opportunity for dialogue on enhancing stability, prosperty, and European integration in the region.

The stakes in the European Union enlargement policy have been heightened by Russia’s war against Ukraine and increasingly explicit foreign interference in the Western Balkans, Eastern Partnership and the European Union itself. The EU enlargement policy is crucial in countering these challenges by offering a pathway for the Western Balkan countries to join the European Union. Through the enlargement process, the European Union aims to promote stability, democracy, and economic development in the region, while also countering external influences that may undermine the progress.

The European Union enlargement policy faces several challenges. Firstly, there are internal constraints within the EU itself. Member states hold differing opinions on the pace and scope of enlargement, and concerns about the economic and political implications of expansion can arise.  Achieving consensus among member states on the enlargement process can be a complex task. Unresolved bilateral issues continue hindering the progress.

Externally, challenges include the influence of external actors in the region. Geopolitical rivalries and interference from non-EU countries can create obstacles to the enlargement process. Ensuring a stable and secure environment, free from external interference, is crucial for the successful implementation of the enlargement policy.

Additionally, the candidate countries face challenges in meeting the European Union’s membership criteria. Reforms related to democracy, the rule of law, corruption, and economic development are necessary but can be arduous to implement or run counter the vested interests. Sustaining the momentum and commitment to these reforms is essential for progress. The enlargement policy has the potential to increase the European Union’s relevance in its neighbourhood in several ways. Firstly, by successfully integrating the Western Balkan countries, the European Union can extend the area of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, contributing to stability, peace, and progress in the region. The EU plays a significant role in regional affairs, acting as a stabilising force contributing to conflict resolution, reconciliation, and cooperation among countries in the region. Economically, the enlargement policy can enhance trade and cooperation between the EU and the candidate countries. Access to the single market can spur economic growth, attract investments, and create new opportunities for both the European Union and the candidate countries offering mutual prosperity.

There are several tools available to strengthen democratic resilience in enlargement countries during the European Union’s enlargement process:

  • Conditionality: The European Union uses conditionality as a tool to ensure that enlargement countries meet democratic standards and adhere to the rule of law. By making progress on political reforms and democratic institutions a prerequisite for accession, the European Union encourages countries to strengthen their democratic resilience. However, the question remains: how we can better use this mechanism, including the ‚sticks and carrots‘ of technical and financial pre-accession assistance?
  • Negotiation Chapters: The negotiation process itself provides an opportunity to address democratic challenges. Specific chapters on judiciary and fundamental rights as well as on justice, freedom, and security, focus on strengthening democratic institutions, rule of law, human rights, and combating corruption. A stronger messaging on all these chapters could provide a framework for addressing democratic resilience and boosting necessary reforms.
  • Monitoring Mechanism: The European Union monitoring mechanisms are crucial in assessing the progress of candidate countries in strengthening democratic resilience, which include regular reporting, assessments, and benchmarks that evaluate the implementation of democratic reforms and highlight areas requiring further attention. The European Parliament calls for setting up a dedicated rule of law task force and enhanced expert missions to decisively tackle rule of law deficiencies. Reporting and evaluation should be improved to step up democratic resilience and security. We need an enhanced assessment of the rule of law, environmental and socio-economic impact of the European Union funding.
  • Technical Assistance and Capacity Building: The European Union’s technical assistance and capacity-building programmes support enlargement countries in developing robust democratic institutions and practices. This assistance involves training programmes, knnowledge sharing, expertise exchange, and financial support to enhance democratic governance and resilience.
  • Civil Society Engagement: Promoting civil society engagement and supporting independent media are essential tools to strengthen democratic resilience. The European Union encourages cooperation and dialogue between civil society organisations, governments, and EU institutions fostering democratic values, promoting human rights, and ensuring checks and balances in the enlargement countries.

The Thessaloniki Declaration, adopted in 2003, marked an important milestone in the European Union’s commitment to the enlargement process. It recognised the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries and set the stage for their future integration into the European Union. Now, 20 years later, there is an opportunity to reflect on the progress made and discuss moving the European Union enlargement process forward. Since the Thessaloniki Declaration, several countries in the Western Balkans have made significant, albeit slow strides towards European Union integration. Montenegro and Serbia started accession negotiations around the same time in 2012/13. Last year Albania and North Macedonia opened negotiations, while Bosnia and Herzegovina was granted candidate. Lastly, as of next year, Kosovo citizens will be able to travel visa free in the European Union. The anniversary also comes one year after the European Council meeting in June 2022, when a major shift in the European Union’s foreign and enlargement policy took place with the approval of candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova in the context of Russian agression against Ukraine.

However, the path to European Union membership is not without challenges. The enlargement process requires candidate countries to meet specific criteria, including political, economic, and judicial reforms, as well as alignment with European Policy policies and standards. These requirements ensure that new members are fully prepared to take on the obligations and responsibilities of European Union membership. To move the European Union enlargement process forward, it is crucial to address the remaining challenges and strengthen cooperation between the European Union and the Western Balkan. This can be achieved through continued support for reforms, enhancing regional cooperation, and ensuring the rule of law, democracy, and good governance.

The European Union has a significant role to play in supporting the Western Balkan countries in their reform efforts. This includes providing financial assistance, technical expertise, and guidance throughout the accession process. The European Union should also maintain clear and consistent communication regarding the enlargement process, outlining the expectations and benefits of membership.

At the same time, the Western Balkan countries need to demonstrate their commitment to the reform agenda and actively engage in the accession process. This involves implementing necessary reforms, tackling corruption, strengthening the rule of law, and ensuring the protection of human rights. Regional cooperation and reconciliation efforts are also essential to fostering stability and prosperity in the region.

Additionally, public support for European Union enlargement is crucial. It is important to engage with citizens in both the European Union member states and the Western Balkans to address concerns, raise awareness about the benefits of enlargement, and ensure that the process remains transparent and inclusive.

Major transformative shifts occurring in Europe reinvigorated the discussions surrounding European Union enlargement. Various suggestions have emerged in recent times, such as the idea of the European Political Community and revising voting mechanism within the Council concerning foreign policy and enlargement matters. Both internal and external pressures are mounting to implement a more flexible and progressive accession process, which involves heightened political collaboration.

The intricate nature of these developments require to boost the ongoing dialogue and communication at various levels between the European Union and the candidate countries to ensure that all stakeholders remain engaged and well informed.

The 20-year anniversary of the Thessaloniki Declaration provides an opportunity to revitalise this dialogue. By addressing the remaining challenges, strengthening cooperation, and maintaining a clear roadmap, the European Union can continue to support the Western Balkan countries on their path towards European Union membership, fostering stability, prosperity, and European integration of the region.