Over the past days, the discourse on the Western Balkans’ EU accession has been dominated by discussion of the (in)famous French non-paper, finally explaining the thinking behind the changes in the enlargement methodology announced earlier by President Macron. Ever since France blocked the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania at October’s European Council meeting, criticising and even bashing French proposals has been a popular sport within the expert and think-tank community in the EU and the region at large.

Milena Lazarevic, Programme Director, European Policy Centre (CEP), Belgrade

But let’s not dismiss its ideas just because we don’t like the way they’ve been delivered. I would dare argue that these proposals – even if quite general in this first draft – present an opportunity for the Western Balkans to benefit from a substantively improved accession process. As French officials have repeated several times in the past few weeks, the process needs to change from a “box-ticking” exercise into a truly transformative one.

Firstly, one needs to acknowledge the fact that the non-paper clearly reiterates “full and complete accession” as the final objective of the process. Therefore, there should be no more speculation that the region would be offered a substitute for membership.

Next, the non-paper presents a more gradual pathway towards membership, which is useful in two ways. First, by allowing candidates to accede to EU policies in a step-by-step manner, the moment of actual accession would be rendered less intimidating – particularly for member states. Second, gradual accession would allow candidate countries to “practice membership”, for example by taking part in Council deliberations (without voting rights).

The French proposal, however, lacks clarity on the legal context of the proposed “gradual accession.” The devil will, clearly, lie in the details. If candidate countries are still to remain just that, up to the final point of meeting all the stringent criteria, without signing accession or sectoral treaties, the European Court of Justice will not have jurisdiction over any of the matters covered by the acceded policy blocks. The question is, then, whether anyone will take such participation seriously. What is needed for the further elaboration of this proposal is a sound legal analysis, laying out options and their impact.

The second principle is about “stringent conditions.” Rather than introducing a new concept, this principle mainly reiterates the need for basing advancement on clear and objective indicators of progress. While an increased reliance on various international methodologies is essentially positive, this suggestion leaves out the region’s civil society, which has been heavily involved in monitoring domestic reforms. Secondly, the non-paper mentions “tangible economic and social convergence” as an objective to be met before final accession. There is a danger here of creating a new and perhaps unsurmountable obstacle for EU aspirants, given that convergence is in fact expected as a consequence of membership.

The true meaning of the second principle will also depend on the final design of the third key principle. Discussing “tangible benefits,” the non-paper mentions the possibility of making structural funds available to candidate countries. If the convergence criterion discussed above is introduced, then access to structural funds must be intrinsically linked to it. Several caveats regarding rules of access and anti-corruption mechanisms to avoid possible misuse of these funds would also need to be considered.

The fourth principle concerns the “reversibility” of the accession process, which can be achieved through small changes to the already available instruments. Indeed, we do need the process to be more reactive to the situation on the ground, with clearer consequences when authorities fail to uphold even the most basic democratic and rule-of-law standards.

The non-paper also proposes an improved political governance of the process, including annual European Council meetings with Western Balkan heads of states or governments. Such meetings would help keep enlargement high on the EU’s political agenda, while at the same time supporting the region’s convergence with the mainstream EU priorities. Yet, increased interaction at the political level should also be accompanied by a clearer decoupling of support for our countries’ EU accession processes from support for local leaders and their often-questionable governing practices.

As I said above, the devil will be in the details. Whereas the non-paper offers the bones of a reformed enlargement methodology, the Commission will need to develop it in totality. Along with working out legal intricacies, the final proposal should take special care to make the process more motivating for region’s political leaderships, through both the carrots and the sticks introduced on the way.

And finally, a decisive factor in either backing or blocking the French proposal may be support from the region itself. Rather than imposing a new methodology from the top down, this is a much-needed opportunity to work together with those local actors most concerned with the true transformation of our countries into credible future member states.

(A longer version of this text was initially published as a blog post on the website of the European Policy Centre - CEP).