Mose Apelblat

A recent interview in EurActive with Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle on the credibility of the enlargement process has caused a minor row with Bulgaria and Romania. The two countries were singled out because of the so-called cooperation and verification mechanism which was put into place when they became EU members in 2007. What about other new member states?
Although enlargement overall has been a success, Bulgaria and Romania were obviously not ready for membership in 2007. This explains the need for a special mechanism after accession to track their progress in implementing judicial reform and fighting corruption. What is extra-ordinary is that the mechanism is still in place. The mechanism did not replace the leverage EU had before accession.
EU might have been misled to believe that the two countries were ready for accession or hoped that once inside EU they would get their act together. The main mistake was that back in those years EU decided on accession dates well in advance of the actual accession. The 10 countries that joined EU in 2004 were better prepared but far from completely ready.
In the Commission’s ex-post evaluations from 2006 the evaluators concluded: “The need for the transition facility and for transitional arrangements demonstrates that pre-accession assistance (Phare) was unable, by itself, to ensure that the pre-accession agenda was completed by the date of accession.”
In the accession process EU supported, though in a piecemeal and non-strategic way, reforms of the public administration in the candidate countries, in particular new legislation and institutions to put into place an effective, impartial and merit-based public administration.
Unfortunately in some countries the reforms were undone after accession. Constitutional changes in Hungary have aroused criticism by EU for jeopardizing the independence of regulatory bodies and contradicting European standards.
Politicisation of the civil service is still common in the new member states. In most central European countries there is a high rotation of civil servants after changes in government following elections.

Replacement of civil servants at lower management levels not only contradicts the principle of merit-based recruitment but also reduces the stability of the civil service and its capacity to function and implement policies. It also becomes a matter of governability.
In the previous enlargement rounds there was an assumption that the cumulative effect of capacity building in different sectors would result in public administration reform in a comprehensive sense but this turned out to be wrong. Another issue was the lack of a champion for reform and insufficient political support or commitment for far-reaching reforms in the public sector.
Besides inadequate public administration reform in the candidate countries, there were other political problems which were swept under the carpet. By accepting the Republic of Cyprus before the Cyprus issue was solved, EU imported a major problem which still is waiting for a solution and which has obstructed the accession negotiations with Turkey.
In Estonia and Latvia there were significant ethnic minorities of Russian speaking people who didn’t pass the language test for citizenship and still do not enjoy voting rights. Not sufficient attention was paid to the Copenhagen political criterion concerning the protection of minority rights. EU-Russia relations might have looked different today if the citizen problem in those countries had been resolved.
The fight against corruption, today a priority in the enlargement process, is obviously an issue not only in Bulgaria and Romania but in other new member states and some old member states. Laws on prevention of corruption continue to have loopholes. Enforcing authorities are ineffective or may themselves by afflicted by corruptive behaviour.
Fortunately, EU has learned a number of lessons since the enlargement rounds in 2004 and 2007. In 2006 it decided that it would refrain from setting any target dates for accession until the negotiations are close to completion. Compared to previous enlargements, more attention is now attached to conditionality. Furthermore, new tools such as opening and closing benchmarks in the negotiations were introduced.

There is also a general understanding since 2011 that candidate countries need to tackle issues such as judicial reform and the fight against organized crime and corruption early in accession negotiations. This understanding has resulted in a new approach to the acquis chapters on the judiciary and fundamental rights respectively justice, freedom and security.

In the past these chapters were considered too difficult to start with in the negotiations. The assumption was that one should start with the “easy” chapters. For this reason negotiations with Turkey on judiciary reform were never opened. The Turks complained that they weren’t given benchmarks or even information about what to do.

This is of course a weak excuse for not implementing reforms that Turkey anyway needed to do for domestic reasons. Also without formal negotiations, the Commission described the gaps and problems in quite detail in its annual progress reports. But probably the situation today would have looked different if negotiations on chapters which require maximum time for implementation would have started from the beginning.

The basic theory behind the support given to candidate countries, without mentioning it explicitly, is that laws express social and moral values and that change in the legislation will affect people´s values and behaviour. In reality we know that it’s not that easy and that it can take years to change the administrative and legal culture in a country.

There is also better awareness today of the important issues in public administration reform. Take for example local self-government and decentralization. Basically it’s about delegating powers and competencies from central to lower levels in combination with a transfer of funding. It can therefore also be seen as a form of democratisation and part of a domestic agenda irrespective of the accession process. The new government in Ukraine seems to understand this.

In previous enlargement rounds most focus was placed on supporting reforms on central level. But candidate countries need to reform both central and local governments. Good governance starts on local level. Furthermore, the bulk of the acquis is implemented by local and regional authorities.

A decentralisation strategy, as part of an overall reform strategy, is particular relevant for countries with significant minority populations and ethnic or cultural diversity, as is the case in several of the candidate countries. Decentralisation can become a tool for granting rights on local level and enabling a truly multi-cultural and pluralistic society.

If a candidate country makes real progress on the ground, it should move forward in the accession progress. That’s the meaning of political conditionality.
For a member state to condition its support to enlargement on the solution of bilateral commercial issues, as the Czech Republic recently did with regard to Albania, expresses a narrow national interest. Luckily the Czech objections were dropped as the member states agreed last week to grant Albania EU candidate status.

The decision was taken on the basis of the Commission´s recommendation in its recent report (4.6.2014) on Albania’s progress in meeting the requirements for candidate status, following the parliamentary elections in June 2013 which resulted in an orderly transfer of power to a new government. The report can be read as an exercise in credibility.
The Commission concluded that Albania has continued to implement and consolidate its EU-related reform measures, in particular those relating to candidate status. On the other hand a number of key challenges essential for Albania to further advance decisively in its EU-integration path have already been identified, incl. in the area of the civil service.
The new law on the civil service in Albania was supposed to enter into force on 1 October 2013 but became effective only on 26 February 2014. While the new law is hailed as a major step forward to enhance professionalism and fight politicization, it’s not clear to what extent the old pattern of party-based dismissals and new recruitments was repeated after the elections.
To sum up: If the enlargement process has lost credibility it’s because general flaws in the previous enlargement rounds. Enlargement fatigue and the economic crisis play also a role. Normally the support to enlargement varies by country. In the latest Eurobarometer (May 2014) however there was hardly any question on the attitudes towards enlargement.
But effective implementation of the new approach should go some way in restoring the credibility of enlargement.

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  1. Thank you for this very interesting article. Elargement is one of the main current issues. I hope the next President of the EU Commission will clearly tell what he is intended to do.
    We should not forget that the European Union is firstly a political union, with its own history, culture, people, States, and borders. Actually, the issue reminds us the fundamental question : what is Europe ? Can we consider Turkey as European country for instance ?
    I think – as a lot of European citizens probably – that we should stop enlargement for the moment. It is too early for Albania. Most of the candidates need time to develop their economy and political system. EU must help them of course.
    The European borders are double. From one hand, you have the borders of the European Council, which includes most of the continent and Turkey. On the other hand, you have the EU borders. Should they become the same ? since 2004, political choices have set this into practice . This is a key point

    1. Thanks for your comments, Emmanuel. Just a quick feedback. I don’t think that we can leave any “black holes” in the Western Balkans. The fact that Albania has been granted candidate status doesn’t mean that it will become a member state next year. It will take years as we saw with Croatia. The same for Turkey provided that it changes course from its current authoritarian trend. What is required is strict conditionality in each phase of the process. The Council of Europe differs from EU although the two organisations work together, e.g. concerning the European Charter on Local Self-Government. The Council has 47 member states and applies a softer type of conditionality.

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