- December 09, 2020
On December 9, 2020, the Aspen Institute Germany hosted an online discussion on the topic “What Future for the EU Enlargement in Pandemic Times?” with Florian Bieber, Professor for Southeast Europe at the University of Graz, Majlinda Bregu, Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council, Milena Lazarević, Programme Director at the European Policy Centre (CEP) and a member of the Think for Europe Network, Genoveva Ruiz Calavera, Director Western Balkans, Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR), European Commission, and Ambassador Susanne Schütz, Director for South-Eastern Europe, Turkey, EFTA States, OSCE, and Council of Europe at the German Federal Foreign Office. The discussion was moderated by Adelheid Wölfl, Correspondent for South-Eastern Europe at Der Standard, and focused on the credibility of the EU enlargement process, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the region and its repercussions for the reform processes, as well as the efficacy of the EU’s available instruments to support economic recovery and democratization under the current circumstances.
Several speakers expressed regret that no considerable progress was reached in the accession process with Albania and North Macedonia in 2020. The veto by Bulgaria against the accession framework for North Macedonia was described as yet another example of an undue bilateralization of the enlargement process by an EU member state, which undermines its merit-based character. The resulting credibility problem significantly weakens the EU’s transformative power as incentives for reforms are lacking in the eyes of both governments and citizens from the region. To counter growing EU-skepticism in the Western Balkans, the importance of improved communication with citizens was highlighted, as well as the need for honest and critical public statements by the EU regarding shortcomings in the areas of rule of law and democratization. In this context the hope for a potentially resulting competitive pressure in terms of progress in the reform and accession process between countries but also between political parties within the countries was expressed.
As economic performance is expected to drop throughout the region as a consequence of the pandemic, assistance provided by the EU including through the Economic and Investment Plan (worth around 9 billion EUR) was deemed highly important. Yet, some panelists questioned if funds will suffice to allow for substantive economic recovery and to prevent the development gap between the region and the EU from growing. In this context, the risk of third actors providing loans with less strings attached to a financially weakened Western Balkans region and thereby undermining EU conditionality was highlighted.
Furthermore, the recent progress concerning regional cooperation with Common Regional Market (CRM) adopted at the Sofia Summit in November was addressed. Arguments were made that the CRM – if fully implemented – will decrease costs for the business sector and could attract foreign direct investment. Additionally it was underscored that the CRM can and will by no means substitute EU integration but constitutes an instrument to promote the necessary reform processes. Finally, the EU was called upon to utilize its leverage as the Western Balkans’ largest development and trading partner to support the region’s governments in implementing reforms under aggravated circumstances while at the same time insisting on the rule of law criteria. Hopes for a new Biden presidency to cooperate closely with the EU in this regard concluded the discussion.
The entire discussion can be watched here: