Alexandra Stiglmayer: Now Skopje and Tirana have greater chances for EU talks

But if the Netherlands and Denmark continue with their objection to Albania, that could lead to another deadlock

Accession is no longer achievable within one to two government mandates, but has become an almost generational project. So the best would be to offer the Western Balkan countries membership of the Single Market. This is ambitious, it requires implementing 60 to 80% of the acquis, but it is also very concrete and meaningful, says Alexandra Stiglmayer, General Secretary of the European Stability Initiative, in an interview to Europost.

Ms Stiglmayer, Paris saw in the revised enlargement methodology, proposed by the Commission, a step in the right direction. Do you think that the revamped system can lead to breaking the heavy deadlock of the process towards EU membership for the Western Balkans countries?

It can lead to breaking the deadlock, but this is not certain. So far, the French reaction has been quite positive, but France is not the only problem. At the meeting of EU leaders in October, the Netherlands and Denmark were against opening talks with Albania, they said “yes” to North Macedonia, but “no” to Albania. At the same time, President Macron has said many times that it would be a mistake to separate the two countries. His position is we either open with both countries, or do not open with anyone. We have to see how this will play out. If the Netherlands and Denmark continue to block Albania, this could lead to another deadlock because President Macron might not agree to open talks with North Macedonia only. Overall, I would say the chances are greater now than two weeks ago, but things can still go wrong. Especially in the Netherlands, there is strong opposition to Albania. This country has a very bad image in the Netherlands, which is not deserved.

Is it giving these countries a sparrow in the hand or an eagle in the sky?

Concerning the proposals, a lot depends on how they will be implemented in practice. At the moment, there is declaration of intent, of will and of desire. We have to see whether EU Member States will accept the Commission's proposals and how they will be implemented.

What I consider very important is that the Commission stated that it would clarify the conditions for accession, and make clearer in the annual progress reports where countries stand in the process, chapter by chapter, and also tell them what the next priorities should be. The Commission also wants to present roadmaps for the rule of law, the functioning of democratic institutions and public administration reform. Such roadmaps and lists of clear requirements for each chapter are indeed needed, at the moment this is all a bit vague and the progress reports do not show where a country stands exactly.

The Commission also wants to involve Member States much more and suggests that they should also do monitoring, send experts on the ground in the Western Balkans, that they should provide input for the annual progress reports, and that they should have frequent ministerial meetings with Western Balkans ministers. But will Member States want to do that? It might give them more ownership of the process, which might be beneficial, but at the same time it is important that the Commission remains in the driving seat because in the end the process is supposed to be technical and merit-based.

Some of the proposals are a nod to a French non-paper on enlargement from last year, for example the idea to group the 34 chapters of the EU acquis, the body of EU law, in six so-called clusters; to be able to suspend or stop the process, making it reversible; or to use sticks and carrots more. The carrots are, however, not clearly defined, it is inclusion of EU programmes and policies, but the Commission does not go into details.

I think, given the many, many years that the talks will take, it is crucial to offer the countries concrete interim rewards to keep their motivation alive. Accession is no longer achievable within one to two government mandates, but has become an almost generational project. So the best would be to offer the Western Balkan countries membership of the Single Market.

You mentioned about interim rewards, which indeed is the suggested by the ESI creation of a South East European Economic Area as an additional stage in the accession process. What criteria should the countries meet to become part of it?

What we think is that the Western Balkan countries should join the EU Single Market if they are ready. Given that the enlargement process will last for a long time, we think it would be good to give them a substantial interim award. This will not be easy because to do that, they have to implement some 60% to 80% of the acquis. To get there, we suggest that there is a very clear but strict process of monitoring and assessing the implementation process. All the things that need to be done, all the chapters that need to be implemented should be broken down into key requirements. There should be clear criteria what they need to do to meet each requirement, for example if a law has to be adopted, is adoption enough? Or do they also have to establish the institution envisaged by this law? Does the institution have to be fully operational or just planned for? Does it even have to have a successful track record of working for a year or two? All these things should be clarified, and then once a year the Commission should do very detailed progress reports where it grades all the countries in the same way, so we can compare and see what should be the next steps for each country. We think that this can move the discussion a little bit away from the enlargement and be a very substantial reward, because being part of the Single Market means of course having the four freedoms: freedom of movement of workers, of capital, of services and goods. It could be very attractive for the Western Balkan countries.

You know well the Western Balkans region. How do people there perceive the idea that the cluster with the rule of law chapter should be opened first and closed last?

I think we have to differentiate between the ordinary citizens and then the elites, be they the ruling elite or the intellectual elite. For ordinary people, they are sick and tired of the never-ending enlargement process. They just say: “Let's get on with it and stop talking about it.” They do not care how it is done, whether this or that chapter or issue is first or last, they just want to get closer to the EU and see their living conditions improve. When it comes to governments: for reformers, those who are really committed to establishing the rule of law, the insistence on it is good. But there are also leaders in the Balkans who know that rule of law means they will lose opportunities to do business their way. I mean, for example: strict public procurement rules may not be in their interest because giving public contracts to your friends means that the friends then do something for you in return, there is also corruption, etc. They do not like too much rule of law, and they want to preserve their privileges as long as possible.

How urgent is the economic development and investment plan for the EU-Western Balkans that Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi promised to present at the Zagreb Summit in May?

I think it is very important because the economic situation is bad. There are not enough jobs, and many jobs that exist are badly paid. The prospects for development are grim and many people leave the region. The EU clearly does not want to have countries in the EU that are “economic basket cases”. A proper economic development and investment plan would be very important, and I hope that this would also offer more money to the countries. The money they receive from the EU as pre-accession assistance is very little compared to what the EU Member States receive. Bulgaria, for example, received almost €1.7bn in net EU funding in 2018. Serbia, which is of a comparable size, received €256m in 2018. The gap between Bulgaria and Serbia will continue to grow. It would be important now, when the EU budget for the period 2021-27 is discussed, to push for more money for the Western Balkans.

One of the main problems in the six countries of the region is the huge brain drain. How can this trend be stopped?

It is very difficult to stop because you cannot imprison your people unless you were a dictatorship. It could be stopped if the economy develops quickly, generates more jobs and people see a future for themselves, but this cannot happen overnight. So, under these circumstances, I think emigration will continue and governments should try to make the best of it. They should stay in touch with the diaspora and offer people good opportunities when they come back - such as jobs in the public sector where they can use the skills that they have learnt, or investment opportunities. This is not yet really happening. But it can be done, Estonia has shown it. It had a huge emigration - in the early 2000s around 20% of all Estonians lived abroad. But the government invested a lot in communication with the diaspora and developing return opportunities and investment opportunities. In 2015, it managed to reverse the trend, since then fewer Estonians have left their country than came back each year.

Do you believe that in the next five years the EU will open its doors for Montenegro?

Very difficult, because Montenegro has slowed down reforms since it opened accession talks. It is not impossible, but it would require really hard work by Montenegro, and I think they would need at least five years to complete the negotiations. After that, an accession treaty needs to be drawn up and all the Member States need to ratify it, which usually takes one-and-a-half years.

Your think tank is known as the architect of the EU-Turkey deal on refugees. Was it successful so far, according to you, and should it be extended?

It was successful in reducing irregular migration from Turkey to Greece, because after the agreement was concluded in March 2016, numbers dropped. Before that, we had an average 2,000 people arrive every day, and now they are 100 to 150. In the first year of implementation, the number was even only 80 arrivals per day. What is not good at all and a real shame for Europe are the horrible conditions on the Greek islands. Greece has not managed to process the asylum claims of people quickly, which the agreement requires, and to return people to Turkey. The procedures last for months or years and people are stuck on the islands. At the moment, there are more than 40,000 people on the islands and there are places for only 9,000. People sleep in unheated tents, there are not enough doctors and personnel, constant power cuts, the sanitary conditions are dismal. It is truly awful. Greece has also not sent enough people back to Turkey, which - especially recently - encouraged more people to go to Greece. In three-and-a-half years they have sent back just 2,000, but they could have sent back tens of thousands, everybody whose asylum claim is rejected in Greece, and most Syrians because Syrians are protected in Turkey. This is another reason why the islands are overcrowded. The new government in Greece has realised that things needs to change, and I hope it will manage.

The EU-Turkey agreement doesn't have any end date, it will automatically stay in place, and Europe needs the agreement to control irregular migration in the Aegean. But it must be implemented in a more dignified and humane way, which is mainly Greece's responsibility. What now needs to happen is the negotiation of a new aid package for the four million refugees in Turkey. The EU promised to Turkey €3bn for refugees in 2016-17 and another €3bn in 2018-19. Turkey obviously expects continued funding from the EU, as a minimum at the same level as so far, if not more, because it is the country that hosts most refugees in the entire world. The EU money only helps the refugees, the larger part of the costs are still borne by Turkey. I think if the EU reduced the funding, Ankara might renounce the agreement, but as long as the EU continues to finance projects benefitting the refugees in Turkey, the agreement will continue.


Alexandra Stiglmayer is the General Secretary and one of the founding members of the European Stability Initiative (ESI), a think tank focusing on South East Europe and EU Enlargement, with offices in Berlin and Brussels. Since 2006, she has been ESI's Senior Analyst in Brussels. From 1992 to 1996, she covered the wars in former Yugoslavia as a journalist for German and US media, including Time Magazine. From 1998 to 2002, she was the spokesperson and then head of the press office at the Office of the High Representative in Sarajevo. For ESI, Alexandra Stiglmayer has dealt with the Balkans, Turkey and Azerbaijan, and led the “Schengen White List Project”. Under this project, ESI helped Western Balkan countries achieve visa-free travel in 2009-2010, and is now pushing for the lifting of the visa barrier for Kosovo.


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