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Western Balkans next target for EU enlargement

Western Balkans next target for EU enlargement

Oliver Varhelyi - Photo EC

(BRUSSELS) - The European Commission put forward a proposal Wednesday to strengthen and make the EU accession process more predictable, targeting enlargement to the Western Balkans as a top EU priority.

At the same time, the EU executive said it would stand by its recommendations to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, said the Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi, saying the Commission would be providing an update on the progress made by the two countries.

The Commission also promised, in preparation of the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb in May, that it would be coming forward with an economic and investment development plan for the region.

A more credible process would focus on fundamental reforms, starting with the rule of law, the functioning of democratic institutions and public administration as well as the economy of the candidate countries. When partner countries meet the objective criteria, the Member States shall agree to move forward to the next stage of the process, respecting the merits-based approach.

A stronger political steer is promised, with an increase in opportunities for high level political and policy dialogue, through regular EU-Western Balkans summits and intensified ministerial contacts. All bodies under Stabilisation and Association Agreement will focus much more on the key political issues and reforms, while Inter-Governmental Conferences will provide stronger political steering for the negotiations.

The process would be more dynamic, by grouping the negotiating chapters in six thematic clusters: fundamentals; internal market; competitiveness and inclusive growth; green agenda and sustainable connectivity; resources, agriculture and cohesion; external relations. The timeframe between opening a cluster and closing the individual chapters should be limited, preferably within a year fully dependant on the progress of the reforms.

The Commission also says it will provide greater clarity on what the EU expects of enlargement countries at the different stages of the process. It will make clearer what the positive consequences progress on reforms can bring, and what will the negative consequences will be when there is no progress.

To encourage demanding reforms, the Commission is to better define the conditions set for candidates to progress and will provide clear and tangible incentives of direct interest to citizens. Incentives could include accelerated integration and "phasing-in" to individual EU policies, the EU market and EU programmes - while ensuring a level playing field - as well as increased funding and investments. The more candidates advance in their reforms, the more they will advance in the process. Equally, the Commission proposes more decisive measures proportionally sanctioning any serious or prolonged stagnation or backsliding in reform implementation and meeting the requirements of accession process. Negotiations could be put on hold in certain areas, or in the most serious cases, suspended overall, and already closed chapters could be re-opened; benefits of closer integration, like access to EU programmes, could be paused or withdrawn, and the scope and intensity of EU funding could be adjusted downward.

The Commission now hopes the EU Member States will endorse the proposal, in parallel with the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, ahead of the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb on 6-7 May. For the summit the Commission will consider how to bring forward investment, socio- economic integration and the rule of law for the Western Balkans region.

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Factsheet EU Western-Balkans relations

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