The theme for the second day of work for the representatives of national parliaments of EU Member States, meeting in Luxembourg on 30 November and 1 December 2015 for the 54th meeting of COSAC (Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of the European Union), was the EU's enlargement policy.
Simon Mordue, "Strategy and Turkey" director at the European Commission's Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR), took the view that the enlargement process could help trigger concrete reforms, by starting a process of economic and democratic reform. He explained that said process enables the resilience of applicant countries as well as stability in the neighbourhood to be strengthened. The "enlargement package" presented by the European Commission on 10 November 2015 is an opportunity to provide an update on the state of progress of the Balkan countries and Turkey, he said.
He reported on a new approach adopted by the Commission, whereby more emphasis is placed on the preparedness of the applicant countries, since "successful enlargement does not depend on speed, but on harmonious integration, and knowing whether an applicant country is ready to assume the accession obligations". In addition, the Commission plans to provide much clearer guidelines on the type of reforms expected, said Simon Mordue, adding that "there is still much to be done", particularly in key areas such as the rule of law, judicial systems, freedom of expression and combating organised crime and corruption. He also stressed the need to make good preparations for a country's economy to be competitive within the single market.
A "merit-based" approach
The European official stressed that enlargement is based on a "merit-based approach" and that, at the end of the day, it would be the 28 Member States that would have to agree unanimously on a country's accession, since the procedure is intergovernmental.
He also urged those present not to confuse the enlargement policy and the neighbourhood policy. In addition, he emphasised the fact that the 2004 enlargement had enabled the older Member States to double their exports, over 10 years, to the 10 new Member States, which had contributed to growth and job creation on both sides.
Simon Mordue welcomed the efforts made by Montenegro and, in particular, by Serbia, which has made "significant progress", mainly due to the process of normalising relations with Kosovo, which has made it possible to conclude an agreement in four spheres, but also thanks to an "ambitious" programme of economic reform. The European official confirmed that this progress would soon make it possible to open chapter 35 of the negotiations, concerning the process of normalising relations with Kosovo.
As for Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, Simon Mordue welcomed the fact that the stabilisation and association agreement (SAA) had been concluded with Pristina (on 27 October 2015) – an "historic step" – and that the SAA with Sarajevo had entered into force (on 1 June 2015).
"Close cooperation" with Turkey does not prevent the Commission from naming the specific problems faced by that society, he continued. He referred in particular to the Kurdish issue and respect for fundamental rights and freedom of expression, and called for reforms in the sphere of the rule of law. He also called on people to avoid "populist" rhetoric, according to which Turkey is not part of Europe; he stressed that it has been a member of the Council of Europe since 1949. However, in Simon Mordue's view it is very clear that the country must embark on reforms that will be stimulated by the enlargement process.
By contrast, the European official criticised a "fragile" situation in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) resulting from "too much political interference", although the country had been the first in the region to have signed an SAA, in 2001. Nevertheless, the Commission is ready to widen its recommendation on the opening of accession negotiations if the country implements urgent political reforms and the political agreement of June/July designed to overcome the political crisis, said Simon Mordue, referring to the Commission's annual report.
Gunther Krichbaum, President of the German Bundestag's European Affairs Committee, considered it "intolerable" for bilateral disputes to be transposed to EU level, referring to the dispute over the country's name between the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and Greece. He criticised the fact that a country can exploit the process as a bargaining chip for settling its bilateral disputes. He considered that if, after over 10 years, the negotiations were still unable to advance and result in a "realistic prospect of success", the accession process was liable to "run out of steam". In his view, the EU was "the appropriate forum" for resolving such disputes.
"In any accession process, quality is more important than quantity"
Gunther Krichbaum explained that "the history of EU enlargement is a success that is the envy of the entire world". In his view, this "community of 28 states" is not only an "economic community" but also a "union of values". "What makes it attractive is its commitment to peace, fundamental freedoms, the rule of law, social security, etc.", he said.
The speaker considered the Thessaloniki Agenda for the Western Balkans to be a commitment that the EU must honour, and which must remain applicable in order to hold out the prospect of accession to those countries.
In Gunther Krichbaum's view, the number of negotiation chapters open is not the sole indicator of the way in which they are advancing. He believes that, in any accession process, "quality is more important than quantity". The speaker also emphasised that "rigour must take precedence over speed" in any accession.
In his view, for each state that has applied for accession, the most "difficult" negotiation chapters ought to be addressed as a priority. "The simplest chapters should not be dealt with at the start of the process, because that would enable the governments in power to claim success by telling their voters that, with them, the negotiations moved more quickly", he explained.
Gunther Krichbaum then called on the countries that have applied for accession to adopt as soon as possible the reforms required for them to become members of the EU, particularly those linked to respect for the rule of law. "These reforms are not there to serve Paris, Berlin or Brussels, but are in the interests of the applicant countries", he said, before pinpointing the lack of ownership of the reforms. "If you are a member of the EU, you are subject to its competitive pressure", he stated. "Countries must ensure that their own citizens can enjoy the benefits of accession", he said, noting that corruption and organised crime have an impact on society as a whole, and in particular on the poorest people within it.
Regarding the idea that the EU should deepen before enlarging, Gunther Krichbaum admitted that, with 28 Member States, "things have become complicated". Nonetheless, he indicated that during the most recent economic and financial crisis, "the problems were primarily caused by the older Member States". This underlines the importance of new reforms being adopted not only by the new Member States, but also by the older ones, he said, referring to the country-specific recommendations by the European Commission.
Enlargement is "an opportunity that Europe should seize in order to address current global challenges"
Kamal Izidor Shaker, President of the Slovenian Parliament's European Affairs Committee, said that the difficulties linked to the recent economic crisis "had sidelined enlargement somewhat". In his view, the EU's enlargement policy nonetheless remains a success, and he believes that the EU "still holds a great attraction for countries outside it"."Enlargement can be seen as an opportunity that Europe should seize in order to address current global challenges", he said.
Finally, the speaker highlighted the fact that "the clarity of the criteria" had been "one of the factors that contributed towards the success of previous accessions".
During the debate, several parliamentarians highlighted the success of the enlargement policy. Some warned against "enlargement fatigue", both within the EU and in the applicant countries, and called for accession not to be perpetually postponed, but for the Balkan countries to be given a perspective for the future.
Within this context, several parliamentarians stressed the importance of the accession process, which urges countries to undertake reforms and modernise their legal systems.
Others took the view that what was needed, instead, was a deepening of the EU, warning against "overload", and stating that the threat of the United Kingdom leaving the EU ("Brexit") ought to be taken as an opportunity for serious thought.
Others, again, denounced the "hypocrisy" in the debate on the accession of Turkey, arguing that it did not belong to Europe either geographically or culturally, but that no one had the "honesty" to say so.