Two prime ministers were particularly incensed after the latest European Council held on the 24-25 of June, writes Simone Galimberti.
As already well reported it should not be surprising given the clashes over the EU fundamental values in relation to LGBTQI discriminatory legislation but what is more interesting is that the two prime ministers who were extremely disappointed were not even in the room during the summit.
Far from Brussels, Edi Rama and Zoran Zaev, respectively the prime minister of Albania and North Macedonia, did not shy away from criticizing the members of the European Council for not giving the green light to start the official membership negotiations for their nations.
Though the entire fault went to a veto imposed by Bulgaria on North Macedonia’s membership and with a common position that such negotiations with both countries should start only at the same time, the true is that not all the members are fully on board on taking this huge step that, even after an intense and prolonged negotiations that might take a decade or more, would risk weakening the Union while widening it.
With still so much blaming going on President Macron for vetoing the starting of the formal access phase back in 2019, observers fear that the EU is losing an important opportunity by blocking two nations that, in the past decade, have shown high commitment and determination to prepare themselves for this key moment.
The risk of loss of confidence and trust among the people in both North Macedonia and Albania in the process of joining the Union should not be underestimated as well as the perils that other hegemonic powers, namely Russia and China, could take advantage of the situation and expand their influence at the door steps of the European Union.
In these circumstances it is almost ironic that the European Commission’s strategy document for Western Balkans ‘accession process published in 2020 and entitled Enhancing the accession process – A credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans talks about trust, confidence building and higher levels of predictability for the membership process to be effective and productive.
Yet postponing the official beginning of the negotiations could be the best thing that Prime Ministers Rama and Zaev might wish for as longer-term considerations must prevail over short-term pressure to start at the soonest.
It should not just be some whims by Sofia that are stalling the access but should be a deliberate and a commonly agreed strategic approach that would safeguard not only the future prosperity of the entire Union but it is entire survival.
It is also not just an apparent loss of confidence among the citizens of the EU in the entire project of regional integration as shown by many survey that, a further expansion, will furtherly aggravate.
With the European Commission opening a legal case against Germany over the primacy of the European Law over the national laws, an issue that as correctly explained by Commissioner Reynders might engender the Union itself, a discussion on possible changes to the Lisbon Treaty must be inevitable even the member states will be dragged into this reluctantly.
There is a compelling case for an overall improvement in the working mechanisms of the Union starting with the need of adding public health to the list of competences shared between the member states and the European Commission.
More urgent than ever is the need to do away with unanimity rule in the Common Foreign and Security Policy and in addition there is the imperative of furthering strengthening the role of the European Parliament that still lacks the power of initiative without forgetting options of a directly elected President of the European Commission and a possible institutional evolution of both the European Council and the Council of the European Union.
Lastly the latest comments of Slovenian Prime Minister, Janez Janša, now presiding the EU rotating presidency about “imaginary European values” further demand a much stronger EU rule of law and democracy mechanism than the half-baked, compromised solution now available achieved after prolonged negotiations.
While this might appear as an ambitious agenda, the leaders of the European Union, especially if there will be a change in government in Berlin in Autumn, will have to face the reality and deal with it: a Union that cannot deliver its increasingly ambitious agenda cannot simply allow a new round of enlargement without first putting its home in order.
Hopefully the Conference on the Future of Europe might create an appetite for initiating such internal debate even if this will make some of the member states uncomfortable at first but possible changes of government in Budapest in 2022 and in Warsaw in 2023 might prelude to the inevitable decision that a new treaty is what the Union needs.
Does it mean that Albania and North Macedonia should wait indefinitely amid this very uncertain and unpredictable scenario?
Not necessarily but their goals in terms of joining the EU must be revised without necessarily diminishing their stature and importance.
The proposal would be an “Everything but Full Membership” approach, an idea that in the past also envisioned the creation of the so called “Associated Membership”, would give to the most promising candidates, in this case North Macedonia and Albania, a full access to all the programs currently being implemented by the Union but without full membership to the Council.
Instead, the European Council could envision a mandatory configuration with the participation of heads of governments of Albania and North Macedonia preceding its full fledged sessions in which the two countries could be even invited to join as well but without voting rights.
Likewise, the European Parliament could accommodate the representatives of these two countries who would be able to join all the full plenaries and all the working committees.
The status of the MEPs from North Macedonia and Albania would hold the status of Associated Members of the European Parliament without voting rights but right to speak and make proposals.
There is no doubt that such arrangements might be rejected as incapable to respect not only the dignity but also as unable to reflect the full aspirations of two nations that undoubtedly deserve full membership of the Union.
Yet such proposals should not be seen as a rejection to Albania and North Macedonia’ right to a full membership but as a pragmatic step towards that goal.
If there are clear limitations on the side of the institutional arrangements, the citizens of these two nations could take advantage of a full array of advantages that the citizens of other EU nations are already enjoying, including full access to a common market that, as proposed by the think tank European Stability Initiative, would imply a two stage process that would follow the two steps approach undertaken by Finland before its full membership.
The Commission itself also has forecasted one scenario establishing a full Regional Economic Area by
2035 rather than full membership.
In addition, full access to the common job market could be envisioned by progressively opening up Schengen to the citizens of North Macedonia and Albania who will also benefit by the strengthening of a very promising idea, the so called Western Balkans Agenda on Innovation, Research, Education, Culture, Youth and Sports.
If it is positive that between 2015 to 2025, the Erasmus + program welcomed around 49,000 students and staff in the higher education in exchange programs between the EU and Western Balkans, the number of students from North Macedonia and Albania having the opportunity to study with full scholarships in an EU based university should drastically see a drastic increase.
Imagine how Albania and North Macedonia could benefit from fully taking part to the NextGenerationEU program.
The package so far proposed by the European Commission to alleviate the impact of Covid and build forward better is certainly generous but much more should be provided to show how North Macedonia and Albania are fully part of the EU family in terms of tangible benefits.
For sure if the current members of the EU want to lift the economies of North Macedonia and Albania, the already important amounts equivalent to EUR 14.162 billion allocated through Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA III) as part of 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework through which the strategic Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans is going to be financed, should be further increased while assuring the full mobilization of up to €20 billion envisioned in the next decade under the Western Balkans Guarantee facility.
The advantage of this “Everything but Full Membership”approach is that, while certainly be heavy on the pockets of the taxpayers of the current member states, will allow the member states to enhance their institutions and make them purpose ready to fully welcome new members in the decades ahead.
In this way the strengthening of the working mechanisms of the EU will also allow to counter those nationalist and sovereigntists politicians who, already skeptical of the entire integration process, could certainly use a new enlargement to opportunistically broaden their protest vote base.
Perhaps the upcoming 16th Bled Strategic Forum under the new Slovenian Presidency of the EU could offer a platform to brainstorm novel and fresh ideas of meaningfully strengthening the partnerships between the EU and the two most deserving nations in the Balkans.
If the official programme prepared by the Slovenians for their six months at the helm of the EU says something, the approach to starting the access negotiations will be driven by pragmatism.
No matter President von der Leyen’s eagerness to welcome both Skopje and Tirana to the full negotiation table as clearly stated by her during the so-called College visit to the Slovenian Presidency on 1 July, a pragmatic but very generous realism characterized by true solidarity might instead drive the agenda of the next EU-Western Balkan Summit in October.
Those wholeheartedly supporting Tirana and Skopie’s membership should not only think about creative alternative in the short-medium term to meet the aspirations of their respective citizens, but also be bold to envision a better functioning Union, fit to serve the interests of the citizens of 29 or even more members states.
Simone Galimberti is based in Kathmandu. He writes on social inclusion, youth development and regional integration in Europe and in the Asia Pacific.