How Enlargement Is Running Out of Steam

By Florian Bieber*
The release of the EU enlargement reports last week has moved from being a top event for the countries to a non-event, but spread out in thousands of pages.
Not only the declining interest in enlargement is too blame, but also the reporting itself.
For years, the annual report on what used to be called "progress" towards EU membership were much anticipated documents, mulled over by the media, trumpeted by governments to celebrate their success or used by the opposition to criticise governments for their shortcomings.
Not anymore.
EU integration is low on the agenda in most countries of the region. With the exception of North Macedonia and Montenegro, the reports received lukewarm attention.
The reports published last Tuesday (6 October) should have mattered.
They are not only the first round of reports of the new commission, under the watch of the Hungarian commissioner Olivér Várhelyi, whose close ties to the Orbán government has raised more than a few eyebrows.
Furthermore, the reports were initially due in May, but were postponed in the last minute.
The reports are of biblical proportion. Each country is discussed in greater detail than ever, at around 100 pages, thus journalists and observers had to go through more than 600 pages in total on the state of enlargement in the Western Balkans.
This is a lot of trees, but does it make a forest?
The new reports appear to address some of the earlier criticism - that they lack detail and miss out on important developments, especially weaknesses and shortcomings.
The sheer volume of the reports now makes them more comprehensive and most important developments in what has been a turbulent year were caught.
Yet, this does not add up to a clear picture of how the commission sees the region. The details drown out the big picture.
New methodology, little difference
The new methodology - launched to great fanfare in February 2020 to appease French concerns about enlargement - is not very visible in the new report.
According to the new methodology, progress would be linked to concrete benefits, and lack of progress or backsliding would have consequences.
The reports instead muddle along, and interpreting the overall picture is left to the commissioner. This is an opportunity missed to reframe the report with greater clarity, rather than just more comprehensiveness. The frustration of the commission with governments in the region, however, is clearer than it has been before.
For example, for Serbia, it notes that "The Serbian government continued to declare European integration as its strategic goal," showing clearly that this is largely a declaration, rather than a reality.
Yet, here as well the reports and the summery is vague. It lists the degree of progress in some key fields, but their choice is arbitrary (why only freedom of expression, not civil liberties?) and even their assessment is not used consistently throughout, making comparison difficult.
The overall direction of the reports in regard to rule of law and democracy, vagaries and inconsistencies not withstanding, is clear: Bosnia has made the least progress in the eyes of the commission, followed by Serbia. Montenegro and Kosovo are nearly tied in a small degree of progress.
Finally, Albania and North Macedonia have become the front runners in terms of the overall progress.
Yet, the reports do not capture the backsliding that has occurred in several countries, including in Serbia and Albania during the pandemic and before.
Backsliding or regression still do not seem to be part of the commission's vocabulary, so the report for Albania notes that there is "no progress" in regard to freedom of expression, when there have been arrests and sentencing of journalists and civil society activities over the demolition of the national theatre during the height of the pandemic.
Even where the reports capture the problem, the remedies are vague and bland.
The commission's annual reports should be adjusted to the crux of the new methodology that was intended to render the process more political.
This means outlining priorities, highlighting causes for the deficiencies and problems and making concrete proposals for the next steps in the accession process.
It is a pity how the single most comprehensive instrument of EU political assessment of candidate members remains so underexploited.
While the reports have moved closer to capturing the problems of the region than earlier reports, they are still lagging behind in capturing the decline of democracy and rule of law in most of the region and offer too little analysis to show a path forward.
In the end the reports are a PR disaster for the EU in the Western Balkans.
They are obscuring the picture by offering too much detail and too little clarity. With reports like these, one can expect many thousands of pages of virtual paper to be filled for many years to come on enlargement in the Western Balkans. /EUobserver, October 16, 2020

*Florian Bieber is the coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) and Jean Monnet Chair in the Europeanisation of Southeastern Europe at the University of Graz. He is the author of the recently-published The Rise of Authoritarianism in the Western Balkans (Palgrave 2020). BiEPAG’s experts have contributed to this analysis.